Happinesswise (ECW Press), award-winning author Jonathan Bennett explores the relative nature of happiness in a collection of poems that range from his personal experiences with his autistic son to poems about palliative care patients. We learn more about Happinesswise, get some life advice, and read the title poem from Jonathan's collection.
Jonathan Bennett: Happinesswise is about the relative nature of happiness, how it shifts over the course of a life. I think the poems explore less what “being happy” means and more view it as a byproduct of the accumulation of contentments. When it asks: “how are you doing, happinesswise?” I hope it draws the reader into the poems through questioning where they are in relation to their own assessment of happiness.
The poems move from palliative care stories that are funny and sad, to middle-age rural life and all its unapologetic crassness, to the internal journeys of my autistic son and me over five years. The through line is the reflective voice itself as it tackles that most mercurial thing: happiness.
ALU: What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you about writing, or life?
JB: Always go to the Funeral. It’s something I learned late, in my twenties I think—how important funerals are, the ritual, the gathering, the collective grief, the crustless salmon sandwiches made with real margarine and the cold Nanaimo bars.
ALU: What, outside of other books/writers, inspires your writing?
JB: Increasingly, I look to my life to tell me what to write about. I’m fortunate to be able to do so many things—I can’t imagine only writing. I get pulled in so many different directions: politics, business, healthcare, social services, and of course, close to home, family complexity—and it all makes it way, slant, accidentally, inevitably, into my work somehow or another. I think it’s healthy; it’s a way to process and make sense of what I do and who I am.
An analogue of wonder, this Edison phonograph
at almost one hundred it plays like new
like it always has
in the springtime I throw open
the sash windows, creak on the verandah’s swing, let a foxtrot roam the garden, as it might once have.
Through trial and error, I learn that if you crank
the handle twenty times a record will spin
right the way through:
the sound of it pairing
clarinet and banjo, lovers plucked and blown, with Mac and Spy blossoms on the apple trees.
Emerging foliage begins to obstruct my lake view.
Soon fat summer leaves and shade will wash it away with dark and green.
What if I could fell those trees
that crest the ridge? Year-round sightlines of double blue, water and sky. But they belong to another guy.
Out of the glare, flinch and squint, a floating man
fishing in his aluminum canoe, who surely cannot see me, up high, concealed.
Would he mind
that I’ve been watching him as I sit here listening to woodwind notes made by breaths drawn long ago?
I believe I know what he’s up to in his camouflage cap.
Why he’s alone. I’m watching him closely. If he’s after bass he’s too early,
pre-season fishing a petty crime,
committed by the impatient. So, is that a shallow cast? Or just lazy strokes, the thumbing of a paperback novel?
A man escaping the city’s news feed, stealing nothing
more than what was already his? A few private hours.
If so, a fortunate man, happinesswise.
I should set
the record straight. With binoculars I could know for sure, but the song ends, diminuendo into centurial crackle.
Unexpectedly, the floating man (too old to know or care)
hollers out recalcitrant, antiquated wisecracks: Mind your own business.
Oh, poor floating soul,
thinking that nosiness still means something. Take a picture, it lasts longer. Hey, good one.
Did I mention I’m drinking Oolong? Man becomes
lost in tea and leaves, paddling through reeds
from the lake proper,
into the river mouth,
bulrushes, taking his crime, or legal pleasures with him upstream into gentle embankments.
I have now cranked all the foxtrots. The tea is cold.
The man returns to pastureland. Then must portage
to his car, strap it
to the roof and slope homeward.
This is what happens as the lake disappears due to the onset of summer and the difficulty of trees.
Jonathan Bennett is the author of seven books, including two previous collections of poetry, Civil and Civic and Here is my street, this tree I planted. He is the winner of the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature. Born in Vancouver, raised in Sydney, Australia, Bennett lives in the village of Keene, Ontario.
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