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  Broken Lines
Poems by David Bengtson
Juniper Press
$12.95, 86 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 8 out of 10 stars

View two poems from Broken Lines here


David Bengtson's new book of prose poems, Broken Lines, just released from Juniper Press, begins with this epigraph by Chekhov, excerpted from a letter to his brother Alexander:
Best of all, shun all descriptions of the characters' spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don't try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.
These words serve as an anchor, a means of thinking about the two primary characters in the book, an unnamed "she" and "he" whose lives are slowly revealed through slice-of-life vignettes. He often drives highway 71, is concerned about spiritual matters and the meaning of his dreams; he is a quiet man living honestly in his various circles of family and community. She is both the object of his affections and his sometime foil, interested in fortunes, the wildlife around their house, and their relationship. There is a distance between them, something quiet and unspoken and decidedly heartbreaking.

Ritual, as a means of adapting to the push and pull rhythm of their lives, is a recurring theme in these poems. The man goes on drives and is given to noticing small graces, like the applause of tree leaves. The woman goes on daily walks, returning, as the male speaker in "Her Eyes" would say, somehow transformed:

When she returns, something about her is different. It's not the water still dripping from her hair, not marsh weeds clinging to her clothes, not the splotches of mud caking on her shoes. It's her face, her eyes, something in her eyes says she's not the same.

The lives of these two characters are so artfully and honestly rendered that if people wanted to know what it was like to be a Middlewesterner alive in Minnesota at the turn of the millennium, they would get a pretty good idea from this book. And that is why poets like Lucille Clifton have commented, "Perhaps it is the vast Minnesota sky that gives David Bengtson the ability to see and feel and understand the human condition as well as he does." We imagine ourselves lost in the quiet loves and struggles of these two characters.

And this brings up the age-old debate about what makes prose prose and poetry poetry, and if poetry is in the form of prose is it still poetry? Clearly, master practictioners of the craft of writing prose poems — Louis Jenkins, Russell Edson, Mary Koncel, to name a few — have already addressed this issue, have taken poems beyond "the tyranny of the line". A number of recently released major anthologies of prose poems have rekindled interest in this poetic form. What happens, though, when the poems are pieces of an ongoing dialog between characters, a series whose overall arc serves a purpose that is greater than the sum of its parts? How does this differ from, say, a novel-in-stories or a series of micro-fictions?

It might very well be that the answer is in the poet's attention to what matters: the everyday stuff of life, the resistance of plot, drama, story. These poems — by focusing their attention to the limited, if quotidian, details of ordinary lives — serve as a lense for general experience. These pieces are poetry: they celebrate the joys and foibles of human experience. David Bengtson's book pushes the boundary of what is possible in prose poetry; his is a well written book that, as poet Joyce Sutphen would say, "assure[s] us that there is also mercy and a song to sing."

View two poems from Broken Lines here

Poet's Biography:
  David Bengtson grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island, and moved to Minnesota to attend Concordia College in Moorhead. From 1968 to 2002, he taught English at the high school in Long Prairie, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, Marilyn. He has received a SASE/Jerome Fellowship, a Prize for Poetry from the Academy of American Poets, and a Loft-McKnight Award for Creative Prose, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee. As a visiting writer and teacher, he conducts writing, video poetry, and teacher-education workshops.

Broken Lines (ISBN: 1-55780-168-1) is available exclusively from the publisher, Juniper Press, P.O. Box 8037, St. Paul MN 55108-0037, for $12.95 plus $3.00 shipping.

A publication reading will be held on Saturday, February 21, at 7:30 p.m., in the Art Gallery of Giddens Learning Center, Hamline University, 1556 Hewitt Avenue, St. Paul.

For more information about the book or reading, contact Mark Olson, 651 523-2406, or email:

© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.