The writing of Gertrude Stein has influenced many fine writers including the fiction of Ernest Hemingway. In 2016 as one of The Word Works
Hilary Tham Capital Collection selections, the Steiny Road Poet has had the pleasure of helping publish the cross genre work The Land Is a Painted Thing by Carrie Bennett. In the tradition of the prose poetry of Stein’s Tender Buttons,
Bennett’s Painted Thing might also be characterized as flash fiction or micro fiction.
WHY PAINTED THING IS A WINNER
Serving as an independent judge of the Hilary Tham Capital Collection competition, poet Kimiko Hahn—author of Brain Fever—wrote:
Carrie Bennett’s The Land Is a Painted Thing is a captivating narrative presented in prose poems by a clear-spoken first-person. In the mode of science fiction, the story is at first disorienting but by degrees the transplant factory feels familiar. Awful and fascinating. Transplant yourself here.
After an email exchange May 12, Steiny spoke by phone with Bennett May 14. Before Steiny addresses the entirety of what Bennett said and
what Hahn is referring to relative to “the transplant factory,” Steiny wants to assert what attracted her to this manuscript prior to it being selected for book
#1: As stated Painted Thing presents as a Stein influenced work but unlike Tender Buttons, the individual prose poems are not
koans that slow the reading of the entire work. Bennett has achieved a narrative flow that invites the reader to read and turn the pages and then to come back to the beginning
with new awareness. The fascination mounts like a murder mystery, but the question is what are we doing to ourselves?
#2: Bennett prefaces Painted Thing with this quote from William Kentridge’s
The Refusal of Time: “What will come has already come.” The quote invokes the dread of William Butler Yeats’ poem
“The Second Coming” and is reinforced by such Painted Thing poem titles as “The Machine Knew to be Careful This time,” “Homeland Security I,” and “Homeland Security II.” However, much to Steiny’s excitement—because she (Steiny) was swept away Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time (see The 2014 Steiny Road to Operadom column on The Refusal of Time) employs
a much wider reach of Kentridge’s landscape created in his extraordinary multimedia work which is now a permanent installation at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of
On this subject, Bennett responded:
I saw The Refusal of Time at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston in 2014 and instantly fell in love with his work, especially his Breathing Machine and how immersive the piece was with the projections and videos moving across the room-space. I think when I saw his breathing machine, it helped solidify my own machines in The Land Is a Painted Thing;
I had always imagined them part-human or almost-humans. The way Kentridge offered breath to a machine—a thing that creates life for an object we assume
After seeing Kentridge's show I was influenced by the [breathing] machine, his [video] images, his notions of time and
the sun. These definitely found their way into the subconscious of the book, [particularly in] revising the poems in The Land.
#3: A reading of the titles of Bennett’s individual poems as set forth in the table of contents informs the reading of Painted Thing by providing what seems to be a poetic window into the work. Take for example Section 1 for which Steiny will provide pauses in the reading of the titles so you, Dear Reader, can experience the poetic effect:
Transplant Factory / 13
Entering the Machine / 14
Please Remain Silent / 15
Beyond the Canvassed Sky / 16
Grief Primer / 17
Now a False Window / 18
Today’s Lesson / 19
Wild Life / 20
Studying the Particles in Cloud Matter / 21
Avoidance Theory / 22
Crowd Behavior During an Emergency / 23
Transplant Factory / 24
Transplant Factory / 25
Without knowing anything about the poems, one might take away from the reading of these titles a sense of grave concern that is emphasized
by the repetition of the transplant factory where we are entering a machine and told to be quiet. Our vision is clouded and the tutorial is on grief and avoidance as we study
crowd behavior during an emergency.
REALLY? PAINTED THING HAS A SCI FI CONNECTION
Bennett said she worked on Painted Thing for ten years and while it had been a finalist many times, she thought it would
never get published. In responding to Steiny’s question about whether Bennett was comfortable with Hahn’s characterization that Painted Thing is in the “mode of science fiction,” Bennett
revealed that this book was made from two different manuscripts.
George Orwell's 1984 is one of my favorite novels, and strongly influenced me as a writer. I didn't necessarily write The Land Is
a Painted Thing thinking it was Sci Fi, but as I continued working on the manuscript (it is actually two full-length
manuscripts that I revised into one), more surreal and factory-type imagery surfaced, which could be associated with Sci Fi.
About the sci fi connection, Bennett clarified, “The loudspeakers and the big brother elements are probably where the sci-fi
connection comes in.”
Here’s an excerpt from “Productivity Propaganda,” a poem appearing in Section II:
…We had questions. We were told scabs would cover our legs. The words were spoken through the loudspeakers and we were to trust that.
The first poem of Painted Thing addresses loudspeakers as follows (this is the entire first stanza of the first poem entitled
We filed into the room. We positioned ourselves along the white walls, our mouths were closed and waiting. The room
was surrounded with shuffling feet and sighs. Someone covered her face with her hands. Near the ceiling rows of fluorescent bulbs shone starkly, loudspeakers hung in each
The propaganda of the voice projected through these first loudspeakers goes on in stanza three to say “You no longer know
your own names.” And so the attempt to dismantle the narrator and her companions begins in this transplant factory.
THE TRANSPLANT FACTORY POEMS
Steiny asked Bennett to talk about the Transplant Factory poems. Eleven so titled poems appear through the sections of Painted Thing. Bennett offered:
As I continued writing and revising The Land, and the factory images became more important, this title surfaced in my mind.
I almost titled the entire book Transplant Factory, but I didn't feel it encapsulated enough. So I started repeating the title
throughout, almost like place-holders for titles, until it suddenly felt right to just repeat the title. A lot of my revision
work is intuitive, and I go with things until they make sense to my intellect. But also, in the book, parts of bodies are
transplanted places they shouldn't be: lungs are sewed onto sweaters, mouths are placed on other people's faces, legs are
fields, etc., almost like surreal organ transplants.
In talking with Bennett by phone, Steiny learned that the Transplant Factory poems at one time had been one long poem.
Steiny feels this revelation calms her sense of order since having so many poems titled exactly the same way makes it awkward to talk about these scattered texts.
This naming issue also brings up a point about how Bennett refers to this book as The Land while Steiny prefers the metaphor Painted Thing. While Bennett said The Land Is a
Painted Thing was the original title for her manuscript and “the land portion was important” given that some of the inspiration
for this work derives from rural Virginia where she was teaching students of a less privileged economic class, the emphasis on the
transplant factory demands in Steiny’s mind the more altered equivalent. Clearly Bennett has taken what is real and
ordinary—the land—and made an artistic palette that has changed the land into a painted thing.
GROWING UP IN A WAREHOUSE
Gertrude Stein also repeats subpoem titles in Tender Buttons but not in such quantity as Bennett does with the Transplant
Factory poems. For example, Stein repeats the title “Box.”. Here’s what Bennett had to say about Steiny’s question about
boxes and windows which Steiny associates strongly with Tender Buttons:
When I was just a beginning poet, I took a Poetry and Poetics Theory class and was first introduced to Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, which immediately took my breath away. Her
attention to objects, how she describes and "defines" objects in unexpected ways seemed magical to me.
In terms of windows and boxes. Windows are interesting to me because they're gateways from the inside world to the outside
world. And as a poet, I've spent so much time looking out windows letting my mind wander. And then, of course, the
clichÃ© of "eyes are the windows into a soul." What does that even mean? But I do see how eyes function in a similar way:
they let the outside world into our subconsciousness on a visual level. So the visual has always been important to me—the
objects that construct a world—and there are all of these little moments we capture every day through our eyes and through our windows. Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons was another
capturing/recording of examining the world in this way.
Boxes, in part, grew from the factory landscape of the book. I grew up in warehouses (my father worked for various
distribution centers) and many weekend mornings I went to work with him and spent time with my sister among rows and rows of conveyor belts and towers of boxes. This type of
environment feels pretty natural to me, even though on the surface it seems very much removed from nature. Also, notions
of productivity, what it means to be a productive human being. My father was always trying to figure out how the warehouse
could be more productive, box more things up in less time.
But also, boxes as objects are interesting! They function in so many ways and for someone who was very transitory up until
a few years ago, I boxed so many cherished things up and left them there for years.
WHAT’S A KEPT-ORGAN?
In the context of boxes, Steiny asked for Bennett to talk about the poem “The Heart Began to Forget Itself.” Here is the poem
in its entirety:
The Heart Began to Forget Itself
In our sleep the illness was disguised in a small patch of poppies. A blank face looked at me from the ceiling. Who
doesn’t love a doorway? The night was disrupted, the night was a message never sent. But the construction continued.
The wind came to us at right angles. Behind the boxes were more boxes. A pulsing happened there, a kept-organ.
Two questions occurred to Steiny about this poem.
Q : Kept-organ: is this the heart or is it a sexual organ? It makes me think of a kept woman. In the Tender Buttons landscape, box could be pointing to the vagina.
A: I was never alert to the sexualized things that happened in Stein. Stein’s boxes being sexual just went over my head. I’m
also bad at realizing humor.
Q: Can you talk about how you use italics in “The Heart Began to Forget Itself”? Use of italics makes me think
someone else is talking.
A: Part of the use of italics is tonality. The rhythm has changed with these lines. Like a ghostly refrain. I have no
WHERE GRIEF FITS IN
Loss seems to pervade Painted Thing, particularly as it pertains
freedom and control. Yet “Grief Primer” emphasizes the heart. Here is the poem in its entirety:
We learned many words would be lost: books, mirrors, scarves and mittens, postcards, plays, pets, hot baths, sheet
music, river stones polished to a pale red, picnics with lemon cake and coffee, early morning bird-calls, flashlights, photographs, record players, animals carved from birch
trees, bicycles, movie theaters, red wine, crocheted blankets, carousels, houseplants and pianos…
Each word we wrote on little slips of paper we hid under our tongues. Our hearts became exiles, a silence settled in.
Steiny asked Bennett what part personal grief played in Painted Thing. She replied:
Maybe two things play a role with my grief: I became estranged from my grandmother (for reasons out of my
control) whom I was very close with, and when I wrote this book I hadn't spoken to her in 15 years. And also, in my late 20s
my father was diagnosed with a very rare form of lymphoma called Mantel Cell. I spent a month taking care of him during
his first chemotherapy, I shaved his head before his hair had a chance to fall out, I watched him be uncontrollably sick. I think
on a deep, subconscious level, I began to believe that illness was everywhere—in our bodies, in the ground’—and we had no
control over it. (My father, miraculously, after a stem cell transplant, has been cancer free for 9 years.) (I made contact
with my grandmother several years ago to find out that she has Alzheimer's and when I visited her she had no recollection
of who I was.) Time, the body, illness, control: these were major preoccupations in my mind as I worked on these poems.
I say maybe because The Land Is a Painted Thing doesn't
necessary "take on" either of these situations (I have two chapbooks that address both directly). But on a deep-level
where my mind goes without thinking, yes, I think my mind naturally goes where there is illness and where there is lost time.
OUR NECKS BECAME MAPS
The subject of grief plays into this final question that Steiny asked:
Q: What do you want your audience to take away from this book?
A: I want to create a world having a sense of a cohesive community. How am I going to create a cohesive world? What
happens when we don’t have control over ourselves?
Last summer I wrote a lot of the end poems. I wanted to give them [the characters of Painted Thing] some kind of way out.
They needed to create their own maps. How random tragedy is. I was interested in something that wasn’t language based to help the person survive the problem—a map.
Steiny is quite impressed with this answer since Carrie Bennett’s first full-length book biography of water (published as the
winner of The Word Works 2004 Washington Prize) was clearly about language. Here is the first stanza of the last poem of The Land Is a Painted Thing:
Our necks became maps, our bodies their own countries. What was waiting for us in the distance? Who would forgive this?
Steiny will offer this parting thought— sometimes we wander into areas we don’t know we already are inhabiting and in
today’s world that might be zika-infested terrain or politics the likes of which we hear voices over loudspeakers that are trying to control us. Carrie Bennett’s The Land Is a Painted Thing is a
cautionary tale worthy of our full attention.