Jim Leftwich

An Exposition on la M al by John M. Bennett

la M al
by John M. Bennett
Gradient Books / Luna Bisonte Prods 2015
written November 1998 - August 1999

According to the copyright page, some of la M al was published in 1999 as an electronic chapbook by Potes & Poets Press. Potes & Poets, edited by Peter Ganick, was among the most important publishers of innovative poetry during the 1980s and 1990s. However, as of March 17, 2018, this electronic publication does not appear in a Google search.

The first edition of la M al was published by Blue Lion Books in 2006. I found this on Bennett's blog, posted four years ago:
[John M. Bennett Poetry blog
I keep thinking my book la M al, 2006, Blue Lion Books, is maybe my best. It's also one of the most invisible.]
The Cafe Press Blue Lion Books site still has the description of the press

blue lion books publishes experimental poetry, visual poetry, and fiction. we specialize in books
over 250 pages long, believing that an idea, if expressed, should be expressed in its fullest manner.

but it no longer lists any books at all — not even as having been published but no longer available, as a digital equivalent of "out of print". (Several years ago I tried to order a copy of one of my books, The Textasifsuch, published in 2005, from the Blue Lion Books Cafe Press site and was informed that it was not available, so there was a transitional period, from published and available, to published but not available, to no information whatsoever available. This is not, to be clear here, a problem caused by Blue Lion Books. It is a problem caused by Cafe Press, by the business model used by sites like Cafe Press.)

from C. Mehrl Bennett's word press blog, OVER THE SOFA/ UNDER THE SKIN/ INSIDE THE HEAD, posted May 23, 2015
The first edition of la M al was published in 2006 by Blue Lion Books, and because it is such a classic stand out, a revised 2nd edition has consequently evolved; published by both Luna Bisonte Prods and by gradient books.

From the opening poem, “…mumbling in the/attic “roof” out there, mud beyond my head…”, this revised and definitive 2nd edition of John M. Bennett’s classic la M al confirms its position as one of the poet’s best works. Bennett has created a unique language to express the depth and complexity (or the complexity has created the language), of thought and emotion, or emotional thought that are the core of human experience:

a laundry think .but think re diction think a congeries

of faucets faucets like yr “running-sore” a window to a moon .“a moon all” right a tab le o yr “lips were draped…

The language swarms, swells and ebbs, shatters and recoheres, turns and returns, in patterns that resonate with all the currents, hidden and visible, of the self or selves that inhabit us. An essential book that fully realizes the possibilities of language to contain and know what is.

At the time of writing, 21 copies of la M al are available from Small Press Distribution, and of course the book can also be ordered directly from John through his Luna Bisonte Prods lulu site.

At some point in my life, maybe tonight, I intend to write about the book entitled la M al, by John M. Bennett.

How To Exist
"the poet uses his finished product to promote his experience of himself alive to the rest of humanity, to leave a record of his being in the world" — John M. Bennett, in "Poetry Therapy as Art", in Pudding Magazine: The International Journal of Applied Poetry, No. 1, 1980. (quoted by Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino in "Reading John M. Bennett: How to Read and Think About the Poetry of John M. Bennett" (Originally published in Pudding Magazine: The International Journal of Applied Poetry, No. 29, 1996.) (republished and currently accessible at The Argotist Online, edited by Jeffrey Side).

When Bennett posted the note to his blog saying la M al might be his best book, he selected one poem, "Ham mer", and posted a scan of it. It is on page 102 of the book.

What do I think? I ask myself, more than once. I don't know what I think. I do know that's a good way to begin reading this poem.

I wonder how long I can stay in such a state.

"glint the" "key stinking"

"nail" — "rail"

"pleasure-sit" "hammer-head" "measure-wallow"


"pleasure" — "bleach" — "head"
"measure" — "meaty" — "leach" "gleam"

"achy achy" "name name"

"rusted" "combusted" "crust"
"juts" "justa"

"know" — "now" — "wallow"

"o" — "lipostructure" — "spoke" "floating" — "clavo"

"moss" — "cross"

"clave" — "clavo"

"cough" — "mount" — "pout"

I think "or scratch the clavo just a key stinking / to the bottom. justa" has something to do with clavo
, Spanish
= nail but also clave = "one of a pair of hardwood sticks used to make a hollow sound when struck together"
which has something to do with a key sticking (which "stinks")
(I remember a college roommate playing his old battered piano, keys sticking on Jelly Roll Morton and Tom Waits as often as on Randy Newman or McCoy Tyner) (who played piano on the original
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"?) (keys sticking during Otis Spann songs didn't always seem to stink) clavis, Latin = key
stinking or sticking or sinking to the bottom
where the letters of the separate words "just" and "a" stick together and form the word "justa"

There is a lot of music in this "Ham mer". Many musics at once. On the page, before our eyes -- before our memories associate, and add themselves to the mix.

John M. Bennett, from his introduction to JOHN M. BENNETT PUBLICATIONS COLLECTION, 1940-1995: GUIDE AND INVENTORY, SPEC.CMS.107

The collection originated due to a mental peculiarity on the part of its compiler, John M. Bennett [JMB]. I/he has had a feeling for as long as he/I can remember that I/he didnt really exist, that he/I was invisible. As a result, I/he felt compelled to retain at least one copy of everything that documented the contrary, that a person named John M. Bennett did exist, at least on paper.
This feeling probably accounts, at least in part, for why he/I began writing in the first place.

One of the forms that invisible feeling took was that I/he felt like a mirror: no person, just a mirror in which others saw themselves. So his/my poems became those mirrors, and gave them a more solid, concrete existence.

This collection, then, consists of at least one copy of everything I/he could put his/my hands on that contains published work I/he created, reviews and mentions of his/my work and life, mail art project and exhibition documentations and catalogs, announcements, ephemera, and much else.

On page 71 we find the poem entitled "La m al". The first thing we notice is the shape of the letterstring. For the title of the book, we have this arrangement

la M al

for the title of the poem we have La m al
which of course leaves us inevitably to think of another perfectly symmetrical palindrome la m al

Line one:

c lame hun ch at turn b lack to cling like fauce t

claim lame hun hunch chat at turn [back] black lack to cling like fauce faucet

(fauces: the narrow passage from the mouth to the pharynx situated between the soft palate and the base of the tongue — called also isthmus of the fauces.)

Line two:

c rust les in yr darken ed bat hroom wak ened n ode

crust rust rustles [less] in yr darken darkened bat [broom] room bathroom wak [wok] wakened [end, ended] node ode

Lines three and four:

r ump. wak 'er h all 'n s lumped yr bag o' wet ling uini's c rankcase oil stun (t claim you l earned

rump ump. wak [walk, wake] 'er her hall all in and slumped lumped yr bag o' wet linguini's
crankcase rank case oil stun stunt claim you learned earned

The first poem in the book is a visual poem, a vertical rectangle drawn with a marker and divided in half vertically. Its title is "Foot Rain." It looks a little like a gas pump, he noticed, and immediately registered the complete irrelevance of that resemblance. I wonder what the dictionary thinks the word "reading" means.

read — look at and comprehend the meaning of (written or printed matter) by mentally interpreting the characters or symbols of which it is composed.

Easier said than done? Easier done than said.

In the top half of the rectangle is a stamped image of a foot, and the handwritten word "Foot". In the bottom half of the rectangle are eleven stamped images of raindrops, and the handwritten word "Rain". This kind of visual poetry is known as "semic writing" and has been traced back through Abraham Abulafia to the caves of Altamira. One looks at the images and reads the writing, then compares the two stocks of available reality. They fit together like notes in a chord.

Questioner: Name 10 words that describe your visual poetry practice.

John M. Bennett: tactile, metaphysical, visceral, mindless, mindful, totemic, polyphonic, blank, instantaneous, timeless

John M. Bennett, from the Introduction to Visual Poetry in the Avant Writing Collection, ed. by John M. Bennett, Columbus, OH: The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, The Ohio State University Libraries, 2008 (republished online at Utsanga.it, 20 settembre 2015): Visual poetry calls to mind doubts about the stability of meaning in language — that is, the strict relationship between language and reality. Visual poetry, perhaps more than “normal” textual poetry, presenting or suggesting meaning on several levels and through several processes of consciousness simultaneously, mirrors that doubt.

Visual poems are scattered throughout the book. The one on page 47 is entitled "Froth a Meat". An etymology is a small story about a specific history. Etymologies give us a range of things to think about, but they don't answer any questions. The etymology for "froth", for example, takes us back to late Middle English, from Old Norse "frotha, frauth". Beyond that, silence, we might say, a sort of silence against securing sense in a source or origin. Sense is slippery, particularly in stories about a history. But the etymology does give us a couple of things to work with, particularly if we are a certain kind of poet: frotha and frauth. Frotha meat. Frauth a meat. Frotha a meat. Reading a Bennett poem puts us in this territory, and gives us this kind of map. But it doesn't tell us what to do. It does not tell us what to think.

Meat — Old English mete ‘food’ or ‘article of food’ (as in sweetmeat ), of Germanic origin. Meat = meat, but also meat = candy.

We have (have we?) been given our instructions:

agitate (a liquid) so as to produce a mass of small bubbles a
flesh of an animal (especially a mammal) as food

Think of a raw steak on a white plate with little blue flowers around the edges on a table with a white tablecloth. What we are being told to do is to agitate [stir or disturb, briskly] this steak in such a way as to make it produce small bubbles, presumably of blood.

The poem is in a small horizontal rectangle with rounded corners to the right and a short stem at bottom left. It looks a little like a flag on a stick, or maybe a rural mailbox.

It does not tell us what to think. It does encourage us to think. I am sitting here at my desk at 3:21 in the morning, alone with this visual poem. It seems to be giving me permission to think for myself. In our current environment, we should not take that kind of thing for granted.

Visual poetry shows us how not to think. It shows us how we have been trained to think, and provides some options for different patterns of thinking. All poetry is capable of doing these things, but not all poetry is so clear and direct about it. All of John M. Bennett's poetry is as clear and direct as it can be about this. As clearing and multi-directional as it can be. Cluttering and directionless. Cleanliness is swirling. Clearly indirect. Patterns of direct clearing and
multi-indirect poetry-cluttering. Not to think different patterns as clearing is swirling to think. Tactile and timeless. Fish door.

JMB: Everything I write is a kind of training. JMB: The more voices in a poem, the better!

------ from Volodymyr Bilyk's interview with John M. Bennett, published online at Zouch, November 23, 2016

There are five different forms of poems in la M al.
1) There are the irregular 8 to 11-line poems, with syllable counts ranging from 10 to 14 per line. This form makes up the majority of the book.
2) There are the visual poems, seventeen of them, in a 266-page book.
3) There are the one-line poems, thirteen of them, pages 87 - 99.
4) There are the haiku-like fragments, pages 210 to 218 (also page 123).
5) And there are the long, thin fragmented lyrics, which begin on page 220 and, with a few exceptions, run to the end of the book.

Certain words are repeated, in varying configurations, throughout the book. I have selected two to follow as they appear, mutate, disappear, and reappear throughout the book. There are quite a few other words which would have worked just as well as these two.

ham & faucet

"burn chime, bleeder than your blood outside my / faucet" p. 14 "the kin g ate 'n faucet-ham" p. 15
"ham ur" p. 21 "hamper" p. 21
"sc ore hAm" p. 23
"married in the faucet, kitchen!" p. 24 "pall, uh ham mer? 'foating meat'" p. 29 "ruin ham the tossed" p. 30
"churns blank a, river "h'am" / mastication" p. 33 "oh torpor ham your spread shoulders" p. 39 "saw Ham saw" p. 40
"beer and faucets" p. 40
"bloated Mr. Ham Prance was" p. 41 "H am dime" p. 42
"where the faucet sighs" p. 42 "stop ham the clue" p. 43
"tale o' faucets woof woof" p. 65 "my fog-thought sticky ham" p. 66 "to c ling like fauce t" p. 71
"seething in the / hamster squealing hamster" p. 72 "hamb one you rattle" p. 75
"ripped out the sl ime han" p. 79
"sags outside yr faucet clawed was he" p. 83
"Po: re tal i at e eet ha mb ean" p. 99 "Ham mer" p. 102
"yr hammer-head was sweetly rusted" p. 102 "blaze yr hammer or was wet?" p. 103
"crust 'n hammered in yr / blaze" p. 103
"it claws, stretchy "faucet" hair you's" p. 108 "your hammock like a salad salad mould" p. 111 "cabled "ham" d rank you drank" p. 114
"your chair your hammy 'chair" p. 114 "sigh(phon faucet" p. 116
"itching faucet and yr kitchen suit" p. 119
"a congeries / of faucets faucets like yr 'running-sore' a window" p. 121 "blood-smeared 'n hammered" p. 126
a shiny acne "skin's hams" p. 127 "I nap ped itchy faucet" p. 133 ")basement ham( mer de" p. 134
smoking like a "faucet-whore" p. 138 "ham tabula" (visual poem) p. 139 "stained 'n hammy" p. 141
,was yr dripping in that" faucet- / place "trouble rub ble p. 143 "chord of gutters like a ham sand / wich" p. 144
"taste the hammer flauta" p. 150
"full you quivered like yr face ah / hammy was" p. 150 "cut the ham ist like a / lack" p. 153
"where you slid toward / me 'n broomly flaucets explosivos" p. 155 "left a .cHambered nEst" p. 163
peeking o'er yr "book" a flawcet" p. 170 "stale hammer drift" p. 172
cutting-land or ,"faucet" staring out yr eye" p. 173 "spewed my split ham vent" p. 174
"Mr. Pick le s tockers hammer in my wrist" p. 175 "my / tum bled ham mer" p. 180
"re( guardless an unhampered" p. 181
"pour" for us o Freddy Faucet nice 'n s ticky eat" p. 182 "train yr Mr. Faucet to restain" p. 183
"ah modification ham mis knobless / d ays" p. 189 "yr briney tea an hair fauces falser than," p. 190 "along the fold / were borne the hamsters" p. 196 "sha key shak ey e against the fauce t rump" p. 197 "yr smell ham mer g ashed along the be ach" p. 203
sheaf stack o trichinosis-laughing in the "faucet" where / you scribbled p. 205 "writ her h am a loaf" p. 208
"pill ow as a / d ubbled hams / ter" p. 234 "fl utters / hamsterly" p. 250
"yr osculation- / ham flood de / trays the flo / or ward" p. 258 stran gle d / fauce t then / "u-slept" corn- / mealius p. 260
"re / bounding ham an brick yr pails / o f lock of turds!" p. 263

The whole book is constructed like this. It is as if a handful of poems, maybe four or five (I haven't tried to make a count), have been written and rewritten, over and over, recombined and revised, shuffled sifted sorted shifted, one poem leading inexorably to another. A core vocabulary has been worked and reworked, through variations and permutations, until the words themselves, with all their attendant denotations, connotations, etymologies and associations, seem to be swirling, swarming, appearing and disappearing and reappearing in unexpected combinations and configurations, like bubbles in a boiling pot.


Email exchange between Bennett and Leftwich

JMB: happened on 1 typo:
first pg, after 1st parag.: l M al should be la M al
and 1 query: also pg. 1, the title "How to Exist" - this is a poem from the book INSTRUCTION BOOK, P. 80; did you mean to refer to that?

this is a fascinating essay, and it spirals in, using quotes from other sources, as well as from the book, on what the book is, how stuff works - yr comments on the visual "Foot Rain" are right on target, and it does indeed look like a gas pump - or a window, a refrigerator, a suitcase.... exactly!

yr discussion of the repeated words is also right on target; it's an essential feature running through all my writing - it has to do with a kind of obsession i have, which is the result of wanting to know just what do these things actually mean to me, or to anyone? What IS a shirt? or maybe just the word, "shirt". my hope, at least when i think of readers, with all these contexts in which a shirt appears, is that the shirt will acquire something closer to its full meaning or resonance. your list of "ham & faucet" is a way of intensifying that search for contextual meaning. or meanings.

Repetition is also, of course, a fundamental structure of music, and of the music of poetry.

re "ham" - there's at least one "ham mer" in the book. hammer/ham mer is a construction (or
de-construction) (or ur-construction) (or sub-construction) that i still use, it's very resonant to me: "mer" of course is french for "sea" - so it's a hammer and meat in the sea, along with all the other resonances that may (and should) come up...

thanks for this, jim

here's a little faucet ham invention for you, just came up with it. also attached, as it will get totally screwed up via email deformatting. even before i "send" it it's deformatted!!

JL: thank you, John.

i thought there was a poem in Instruction Book called "How to Exist", but i can't find it. the poem on page 80 is "How to Emit".
in any case, i was thinking of your statement "I/he has had a feeling for as long as he/I can remember that I/he didnt really exist" in relation to the quote and accompanying info beneath the How To Exist title. that record, from 1980 to 1996 to whenever Jeffrey posted the Thomasino essay, to 2018 with my inclusion of the quote in this essay, that's a robust history of you surviving in your writing -- only one among hundreds of instances of this sort, i'm sure.

here are a few instances of ham mer
p. 29 p 102 p. 134 p. 180 p. 203

JMB: ay, my mistake! and an example of how my eyes play tricks on me - i can't find How To Exist in Instruction Book either now; i must have seen How to Emit as How To Exist.... But i too could swear there is such a poem (Google is no help here). maybe i need to write it, eh?

well if i do, maybe you can slip it in to its slot in yr essay...

thx for the ham mer instances - hammerhammerhammerhammerhammer

i've been reading an 1812 volume of old spanish romances (ballads), selected because Cervantes referred to them in Don Quijote (usually to make fun of them) - some beautiful stuff, actually, all in that 8-syllable line that is still used in ballads of today, specifically Mexican corridos, which i can hear any day on the mexican radio station here, corridos about migration, about narcos, and love and tragedy - the same themes as 600 or 700 years ago - there's a great one about a white horse that travels alone from central mexico to the US that has been played a lot on that station

JL: sure, if you write a "how to exist" i will definitely include it.
for now, i will include your comments, which i appreciate a lot, as always, and i'll try to get the proper format of your faucet ham poem in there as well.

faucet ham

ham fauce t ham fauce t ham
faucet ham faucet ham faucet
ham fauce t ham fauce t ham
faucet ham faucet ham faucet
faucet ham faucet ham faucet
ham fauce t ham fauce t ham
faucet ham faucet ham faucet
ham fauce t ham fauce t ham


for Jim Leftwich

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