In life we find there are moments that often elude language. We may remember specific events and places with the utmost clarity months or even years later, but for many of us, they still remain outside the realm of description. For Benjamin Cutler, however, nothing is beyond language’s reach, and the poems in his debut collection The Geese Who Might Be Gods remind us how the world of the past deserves to live in the present.
In this installment of Micro-Essays on First Books, Cutler examines the inspiration behind his work, as well as the journey that has matured him as a writer and a person. Cutler’s poems are personal, but they don’t shy away from interweaving history, or from looking at moments that have an abundance of meaning beneath the surface. Take one of the most memorable poems “Bear Paw,” where the speaker encounters a severed bear paw nailed to a telephone pole. The speaker ponders not only the circumstances that lead to the bear’s death, but the manner in which a body (any piece of it) becomes an opportunity to reflect on how we interact with the world:
How heavy he must have fallen,
how silent and still
as blade cut through radius,
tendon, and ulna—as spike
pierced the palm’s pad, paw
lifted high for a sign:
flesh as dark and bloodless as guilt,
bone as pale and dry as forgiveness.
Cutler’s The Geese Who Might Be Gods is (and excuse my own shortcomings on language here) a must-read, a chance to meditate on relationships, nature, and the places that shape who we are and what we can become.
The Making of The Geese Who Might Be Gods
Regardless of when or where one finds the trailhead, the path to publication is long and not without its briars and thickets. As a writer, I’ve been wandering through genres most of my adult life, but it wasn’t until five years ago that I realized that what I most admire in others’ writing—and strive for in my own—is a well-crafted and lyrical line, the cadence of a sentence, a surprising and carefully wrought metaphor. That was when I committed fully to this trail—writing poetry in earnest, penning the first of the poems that appear in The Geese Who Might be Gods.
Poets understand patience, the slow slog and plod. I believe in the doctrine that writers should read far more than they write (be a fan, read your betters, develop taste) so I read poetry voraciously and, as a strategy for foraging publications that might be a good fit for my own work, paid especially close attention to the acknowledgments pages in books by poets whose work moves me. All of my poems have passed through their seasons—the weeks of revision, submissions, rejections, more rejections. But the acceptances eventually came—and then more frequently. When I had amassed enough poems and publication credits, I felt I could start turning my mind toward a collection. This is a conundrum many poets know. These poems were not conceived as part of a larger whole—each a piece unto itself.
I surveyed and mapped the intersections, both foot-worn and wild—subjects, themes, images, forms—and had initially divided the manuscript into four sections, but a friend with a good eye suggested that this unnecessarily complicated the collection and that these poems settle comfortably into two categories: those that explore human relationships (Part I) and those that deal with nature (Part II). Certainly, Part I celebrates and draws on the natural world, and many of the poems in Part II convey the beauty, complexity, and perils of human connection, but this duality in my work was clear and became the framework for the book’s structure.
The title-poem, “The Geese Who Might be Gods,” was my first published poem, and I remember its conception clearly. I was at my son’s cross-country meet. The course was on a local farm adjacent to the Tuckasegee River. It was mid-afternoon, “When the river / is more light / than water,” and the geese were gathered in number. They were beautiful, confident, arrogant—not unlike the gods of myth. I pulled my notebook from my pocket. It was with that poem that I laced my boots. With its months-long process of revision and its concerns with reverence, uncertainty, and the natural world, this poem was instrumental in setting my gait and pace as a poet: my processes, voice, and the themes that permeate the poems that would fill the collection. Being the first of my published poems, though that distinction endows it with some significance for me, doesn’t qualify “The Geese Who Might be Gods” as a title-poem. It is the word “Might.” There is no certainty here, only a place to wander between question and answer.
There are plenty of forks in this trail, and each route is rigorous. I had presses in mind, some I had dreamed of long before I believed a book could be possible. I submitted and found paths blocked, overgrown, or just too steep—rejection aplenty—but my manuscript was picked up in June of 2018 by Main Street Rag Publishing Company. MSR had accepted some of my poems in the past for its literary magazine and had published books by poets I revere, so I knew it was a press I could trust with my work. The Geese Who Might be Gods arrived in May 2019.
A student once asked me what my book is about—a frustrating (albeit reasonable) question. I am an English teacher, so it’s my job and instinct to provide answers, gesture toward trail-markers. “Love, sex, death, and the end of the world . . . and birds,” I said. This is true enough, but another answer might be: “longing, yearning, reverence, wonder, doubt—and, yes, still love . . . also plenty of birds.” A good trail should always lead you through birdsong.