No matter which way you look at it, the world is on fire. The list of things wrong with our current political and social systems bleeds daily into news coverage, social media, and even the most basic interactions with our family and friends. Although literature is for some an escape from reality, it is for many a chance to confront the variety of issues that faces our society. Advantages of Being Evergreen is a collection that falls into the latter opportunity, and with its keen attention to bodies and landscapes, Oliver Baez Bendorf has transformed his work into a guide to help navigate the complexities of selfhood for these unfair and dangerous times.
Fittingly, the collection begins with “Field Guide,” a poem that reads like a list of statements of what must be done in order for certain scenes and moods to function accordingly:
When you arrive, it must be morning. The light must blue over triangles of
treeline. There must be fields of corn and there must be corners mistaking
elbow joint for knee bone. There must be a trail and there must be the skull of
a possum still lodged inside the trunk of a tree. There must be a tree. There
must be the slightest hint of danger. There must be corners neatly tucked.
There must be red the color of a puppy’s tongue, there must be pleasure
strapped or stolen, and there must be ice there must always always always
always be ice.
Baez Bendorf gives us a lot to unpack and question. Is this a field guide for creating suspenseful moments and tropes in literature, or is it for the book itself, how exactly readers must traverse the entirety of the poems presented before them? Whichever of the two it is (or isn’t), one thing is for certain, there is always uncertainty, and it is this uncertainty about death (“skull of a possum”), the body (“coroners mistaking elbow joint for knee”), nature (“tree,” “ice”), or about life in general that we must always be prepared for.
One of the strongest attributes in this collection is how seamlessly Baez Bendorf can switch the pace between poems, while maintaining a unique and consistent voice. Two poems after “Field Guide,” we enter a narrative in “Rain and Ticks in Tennessee.” The circumstances surrounding the speaker’s day and history with Billay and Daddy (two characters in the poem) isn’t as important as the feeling they experience while navigating this mercurial world. Sometimes its slightly euphoric. Sometimes it’s peaceful. And sometimes, such as in the beginning of the poem, there is a tension that keeps the speaker (as well as readers) on the edge of their seat.
Billay who was clenching his jaw
came around early, climbed in
bed with us.
No one had confessed
a thing, so what was all this
rain for? We went to Hardee’s
for biscuits, drank
coffee among men
who I thought wore
a desire for queer blood, but
which way did they
want it? To fuck or kill,
maybe both, and in what order?
Again, there is an uncertainty that prevails with relation to the speaker and their companion’s bodies. Desire here is dangerous because the manner in which it wants to be expressed and experienced will be detrimental for at least one party, and will ultimately add to the “many gay / bodies [that are] on fire.”
The speaker’s body is not only seen as something different by others, but at times by the speaker themselves. In “My Body The Haunted House,” the speaker reflects on the female body that is now haunting their male body. However, the memory of it, at least in this reflection, resurfaces in a way that feels constraining:
A haunted house is always alone. I carry your body (in
my body). I live for both of us now. Cannot pinpoint what I miss. Looking for
the chicken exit. Desire wrapped in a sheet. Where is the body I said I don’t
know. No body no case everyone knows that. Am I free to go. I want to
go home. I said I want to go.
Baez Bendorf reveals the complexity behind the transition between bodies and genders, and shows how even when we believe we have closed one chapter, the contents of it will more than likely return when we least expect it. In “This Multitude We’ve Become,” Baez Bendorf demonstrates this more plainly:
is I feel more
girl now than
ever before. Walk
with hips, not
wish they’d be –
why’d it take
me so long
to get here?
Although there might be a sense of closure here, the question leaves open a range of possibilities as to why it took so long for the speaker to feel like themselves. We know, as the speaker has come to know, that regardless of the length of the journey, we can eventually feel “loved too.”
Once we have discovered the meaning that had long remained hidden from us, we can claim to be newly absolved. Baez Bendorf captures this so genuinely in “Web,” where the speaker and others traverse a graveyard where their ancestors lie.
lifts the four corners.
No one has a tarantula, so we
use a common spider, found missing half
its limbs. Onion root, oil lamp,
cinnamon sticks, bathwater.
We pour honey into a goddess
cup (no one has a bull horn)—
watch it drip out of range.
I think we are clean now.
I think we are ready.
Although not every renewal is as ceremonious as the speaker’s above, it doesn’t have to be so long as we believe we are capable of moving forward, that we can persist no matter what the situation, time, or obstacle. The world enacts indifference, cruelty, and violence that we may not have immediate solutions to, but Baez Bendorf reminds us that sometimes safety can be found within, and if we search and come face to face with ourselves first, we will be better prepared for the journey that lies ahead.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (word west press 2022), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, Senior Book Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and Associate Poetry Editor for AGNI. He currently lives in south Texas.