Airplane Baby Banana Blanket by Benjamin Dodds, Recent Work Press 2020, was virtually launched by Stuart Barnes on 28th October 2020.
Hi everyone, I’m Stuart Barnes. Welcome to the launch of Benjamin Dodds’s Airplane Baby Banana Blanket. Before we begin I’d like to acknowledge the Darumbal people, the traditional custodians of the land I’m zooming from, & pay my respects to Elders past, present & emerging.
I’m thrilled to be launching Ben’s intriguingly-titled second poetry collection. I first read Ben’s poetry about ten years ago, in Mascara Literary Review. What still echoes most emphatically about that writing is its wit, inventiveness & economy of language. Soon after, Ben & I started emailing each other & quickly became friends.
A few years later Ben’s terrific debut collection Regulator was published. Some of Regulator’s themes—family, coming of age, sexuality, animals, the natural world, science, space—are present in Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, a poetic biography of ‘amber eye[d]’ Lucy (‘One-Off’), a chimpanzee born in 1966 in Florida, stolen from her phencyclidine-drugged mother, then adopted through the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies by Maurice & Jane Temerlin.
Maurice is a psychotherapist & an academic at the university, Jane a social worker. Lucy is raised in their home as if she were their human daughter—or, as Ben writes, ‘[Maurice’s] sometimes-subject / daughter’ (‘Playgirl’). She sleeps in a crib, is toilet trained to a degree, has ‘papers / and Golden Books’ (‘Playgirl’), a pet cat & ‘a Woolfian / room of her own’ (‘Renovations’). She learns to cook, to mix drinks (she favours gin & tonic) & to sit at the family dinner table. Lucy also learns American Sign Language—over one hundred and forty signs & phrases. Ben’s language, technique & verve are captivating. He excitedly unearths, as Lucy excitedly unearths a plant (‘Running Away’), the games she likes to play, her sexuality & attraction to human males, her nocturnal ‘queer racket’ (‘Intrusion’) & ‘chaos and din’ (‘Warm Welcome’), her relationships with her adoptive family & other humans, & her responses to Maurice’s experiments.
In Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, sorrow & hope, terror & tenderness, trauma & healing often coexist. In the poem ‘Lucy’, ‘Lucy flies. / Lucy flies over the Atlantic. / Lucy flies over the Atlantic with her parents.’ The dazzling anaphora continues—here’s the poem’s final complete sentence—‘Lucy flies over the Atlantic with her parents and their paid academic friend on her way to Abuko Reserve in the Gambia (instead of a zoo or a medical lab, two other considered options), not yet knowing she’s left her childhood home and life behind for good as she’s drugged with phencyclidine, sealed inside a crate.’
For a time, Lucy lives on the Gambia’s Baboon Island with ‘provider-protector’ Janis Carter (‘Lucy Lives’), a University of Oklahoma grad student, & eight other chimps. I’m still really affected by Ben’s writing about this period—from the poem ‘Stuck’—‘[Lucy] wants / cup and glass, gin / if she can get it / not the flat river lap / at the island’s skirt. / […] / On days meant as / weaning isolation, she / beams ASL through bars / at a blankly turned back. / food. drink. Janis. come out. /[…] / Janis. come out. / Lucy. hurt’.
Pre-Baboon Island, Lucy encounters only one other chimp, a sexually mature male, at her childhood home. To her, he’s a ‘conspirator-intruder’, an ‘inhuman thing’ (‘A Change of Scenery’). Lucy ‘[d]oes not know // [other chimpanzees] can exist / Is unaware // she’s one herself’; ‘[g]et it out Get It // Out she shrieks in sound / and sign’ (‘One-Off’).
One of the many things I love about Ben’s book is the questions it poses, for example—‘Just how chimpanzee / can Pan troglodytes be / when raised among us / in modern homes / or is chimp-essence / baked in at birth? / What truths can be gleaned / when we rear another’s / clean slate as we do / our own?’ (‘Professor Bill’s Vision’) On reading Airplane Baby Banana Blanket what are we to think about animal ethics, research & experimentation, human-essence, responsibility, science, family, love, documentation, what poetry can and cannot do, & autobiography & biography?
‘Nobody will ever read Lucy’s autobiography,’ Ben writes in the Afterword. If only we could! For Jessica L Wilkinson, the author of three poetic biographies, ‘the objective is to make the [poetic] biography come alive as an echo of character, rather than to dish up all the “facts” for a greedy reader.’ (‘“Beware! This is not a real biography!”: Ali Alizadeh interviews Jessica L Wilkinson’ http://cordite.org.au/interviews/alizadeh-wilkinson/) Airplane Baby Banana Blanket rings with Lucy’s humour, intelligence, cleverness, curiosity, playfulness, exhilaration & sadness, her ‘screaming fear of bridges’ (‘Sunday Drive’), her ‘adolescent tantrum’s / rage’, which ‘can kick down / concrete unless heavy gauge / steel reinforcement is threaded / completely throughout’ (‘Renovations’), & the ‘quiet love’ she ‘breathes’ when Jane visits Baboon Island (‘Reunion Island’).
Meticulously researched, Airplane Baby Banana Blanket’s poems spring from comic strips, pop songs, nursery rhymes, obituaries & photographs, to name a few. I adore the allusions to arcade games, key-parties & the Bible. Fascinating studies of HAM & Enos, NASA’s Project Mercury space chimps, tail the collection’s three sections. Ben’s poetry’s pared-down, assured, smart. Compelling & vibrant, honest & deeply ethical, even when it considers subject matter that some might think is deeply unethical. Refreshingly, it passes no judgement. Most of all, Ben’s poetry, like Lucy, is ‘rambunctious’ (‘The First Bite’), ‘surpris[ing]’ (‘Endings’) & ‘fact[-facing]’ (‘Lucy Lives’), & ‘pushes to be pushed back, wrestles / to be enveloped in return, craves boundary’s / attentive embrace’ (‘The First Bite’).
Ben, my dear friend, reading & talking about Lucy’s important & extraordinary story for five years has been an absolute joy & I—& many others—will be reading and talking about Airplane Baby Banana Blanket for many more. It’s a wonderful book, & you a wonderful poet & a wonderful human being. Everyone, please raise a glass to Ben—& please wrestle, envelop & embrace Airplane Baby Banana Blanket—now launched! Huge congratulations, Ben!
– Stuart Barnes
Stuart Barnes’s first book Glasshouses (UQP) won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, was commended for the FAW Anne Elder Award and shortlisted for the ASAL Dame Mary Gilmore Award. From 2013–2017 he was poetry editor of Tincture Journal, from 2017–2019 a program adviser for Queensland Poetry Festival. In 2020, Stuart’s poem ‘Off-World Ghazal’ was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. With Quinn Eades he guest-edited Cordite Poetry Review Issue 88: TRANSQUEER and with Charmaine Papertalk Green he guest-edited Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry Issue 32: FORM. Currently he’s working on his second collection, Form & Function. https://stuartabarnes.com/, @StuartABarnes
Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is available from https://recentworkpress.com/books/product/airplane_baby_banana_blanket/
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