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Walter Benton

Wandering the shadowless aisles of the supermarket a couple of days ago, I passed a colorful phalanx of plastic-shielded, heart-shaped cakes.  Realizing that Valentine’s Day was nigh, that other people would be putting forkfuls of these hearts into their mouths in the hours that followed, and that a good many of these displayed hearts would be thrown into the dumpster out behind the store, naturally, I thought of love poetry.

My partner of the past three years recently introduced me to a volume of poems entitled This is My Beloved.  I have no idea where she got it, but four minutes of first-rate Internet research informed me that Knopf first published this little tome in 1943, that the author, Walter Benton, was an Austrian-born Russian immigrant who worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, and that Benton published two books of poems in the 1940s.

This history aside, in my beloved’s copy of This is My Beloved, a 1963 edition of this first book, which is presented in diary form, there is an inscription:  “In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and the sharing of pleaseures (sic).  For in the dew of little things the beast finds its morning and is refreshed.  Happy Valentine’s Day – 1963.”

The writer’s rather cliché, poetical diction is spiced up with the tragicomedy of the misspelling, the strangeness of the phrase “in the dew of little things,” and the fact that the word “beast,” in rushed cursive, is quite probably meant to be read as the word “heart.”  This inscription alone is a marvelous artifact, and the book itself seems somewhat complicated as a Valentine’s Day gift because it traces a relationship gone bad—the narrator of the poems falls in love with a woman who ultimately does not love him back, leaving him to declare at the narrative’s close, on “November 25”:  “I am lost on an island somewhere between two rivers. / Blind buildings are all around me— / and the earth is covered with flat stones.  And over me, the low / dark roof—the harbor’s lifted morass and the belchings of many chimneys.”

“Lifted morass” and “belchings” in mind, let us declare:  this Valentine’s Day we agree not to give each other heart-shaped agents of indigestion, but instead, strange, complicated originalities of utterance and legitimate attempts at sharing our, um, truest feelings.  What does Jack Gilbert say in “The Great Fires”?  “Love allows us to walk / in the sweet music of our particular heart”?  Now, that sounds very nice.  Let’s get to it.