Praise for Five Sextillion Atoms
Saddle Road Press, June 2016
Five Sextillion Atoms is a highly distinctive and gripping book notable for the ways in which it combines the stories of family history with larger matters of public history. I was struck repeatedly by the formal compression of the poems, the tautness and acuity of the imagery and the epigrammatic exactitude of the closings. While the concerns are often highly elegiac, the poems scrupulously avoid sentimentality and effusions. Benjulian has terrific skills as a portraitist and satirist, and many of the poems are sly and wry examples of these talents.
In a single drop of water there are five sextillion atoms, yet Earth in relation to the rest of the universe is infinitely smaller still by comparison. Jayne Benjulian takes this astonishing fact for the title of her first collection of poetry and aptly so, for these poems hold vast reaches of perception, loss, personal and family history, all with admirable compression. Diamond edged, fiercely honest, Benjulian’s work pulses with lyric intensity.
As Roethke said (after Shakespeare), you must “kill your darlings,” must not flinch from deleting words, lines and even stanzas you love. You must, that is, if you want to write like Benjulian in lines that are taut, spare, and fiercely compressed. I admire her poems, too, for their cinematic sense, complete with deftly-drawn characters, vivid scenes, and authentic dialogue, and for how they align family drama with the drama of the human condition.
What distinguishes Benjulian’s debut collection is the enormous range of history—personal and world—it covers and does so by employing spare, unadorned language, and does so while withholding all but essential narrative, and does so by focusing the reader’s attention to vivid, precise details that arise from memory and present day occurrences, details that are tiny and large at once. Five Sextillion Atoms deserves our attention and our praise.