Roy Bentley

About Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley is the author of four books and several chapbooks. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Blackbird, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, and elsewhere, as well as the anthologies New Poetry from the Midwest and Every River on Earth. His collection of poems Nosferatu in Florida is currently in search of a publisher, having been a finalist for the New American Poetry Prize (twice), the Moon City Review Poetry Prize, the Gerald Cable Book Award, and the Anhinga Prize for Poetry. He has received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (in poetry) and fellowships from the arts councils of Ohio and Florida. He lives in Pataskala, Ohio.

Childhood’s End: Life Poem On the Eve of Donald Trump

Image of Donald Trump as Time's Person of the Year

Childhood’s End

Back then, I followed my mother around
looking for approval and was shortchanged.
What is a life if not learning the difference
between enough and not nearly enough.

I recall that she had a hillbilly-simple rage.
Which, most often, she might aim at herself;
but, sometimes, at anyone nearby. And me.
I learned, later, that she’d been a hired girl

for a bed. Meals. Clearly, she was ashamed.
Still, she was proud of what she had learned.
That you overcome poverty, maybe anything,
by working for what is, always and repeatedly,

less than you need. A bedside table was books:
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and
scholarly works on the antebellum South. She
was born in Letcher County, Kentucky. After

the War of Northern Aggression, and Slavery.
She read to forget. We’d climb in the Chevy,
drive downtown. Into the city. To the library.
And she’d be patient (then less so) as I chose.

Maybe Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.
Aliens have landed. Taken over. Have hooves,
horns, a reptilian tail. And attitude. Like my
mother who knew what it takes just to live.

Think It Can’t Happen Here? New Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of flag of American fascism

Black Transport

“Even a meadow in harvest with flights of crows and grass fires . . . can lead to a concentration camp.”
Night & Fog, 1955

The Germans who ran the trains
to the death camps
made sure they arrived
in night and fog—
they wanted the boxcar
cargo to disembark
in a state of confusion
so they would be easier
to manage. First, the lie
of resettlement. Then
the off-loading to camps
and the blue-striped uniform
of the doomed. Do you think
it can’t happen here? Do
you imagine you can
forever avoid such
black transport? Do
you trust countrymen
not to show you to a place
on a platform and say, Wait
here and point the machine gun
in the general direction of smoke
as it floats black then a gray-white
as quiet as the sheets on a clothesline.
It begins with respect for uniforms
and loaded guns. Then the fear
that what is happening
is our fault. Then those lies
we consent to in order to live
for a while longer, God help us.
It is already the case—isn’t it?—
that these amber waves hide bodies.

Epithalamium: A Southern Ohio Wedding Poem

Image of Bridge of Sighs in Southern Ohio
It is truly breathtaking, this man-takes-mate-and-
mate-then-takes-him-too stuff. And, sure, I tear up—
teardrop fountains at the vows, that hopeful poetry
spoken alongside abject awareness of the awful
because the job is to balance the bad with Joy.

And, sure, I understand why we need hope
to challenge despair—when you hope you hear
Time lecture on the epistemology of the grave
but don’t want to crawl into a grave. Hope
is the forests in Ohio, Hocking County,

and so: a plaited garland in a bride’s hair.
Some days, Time says, Watch what is passing.
And it says: take courage if, and while, you can—
even here where parking is bad and the hillside
tattooed with the markings of past treacheries.

Photo of Bridge of Sighs by Roy Bentley.

When the Emperor Has No Clothes: A Life Poem about Donald Trump, Revealed at Last, from the Buckeye State

Image of Donald Trump's emperor-has-no-clothes statue

Not Nothing

I wonder if it matters to a working man
figuring dimensions in August-Ohio heat,
doing the math and rounding off, this fence
and how easy it makes letting the dog out.
Because I don’t say any of that right off.
He says he had a stroke. Almost died.
After the epiphany of a recent brush
with death, he says, “Donald Trump
isn’t the asshole that we think he is.”
As if, by not quite dying, he tunneled
out of a warren of the Forgotten to say
what he says. Before that, he has said
death isn’t something as much as not
nothing. We’re standing in the yard.
And he thinks this is wisdom. Stuff
you don’t hear every day. But he is
here to estimate how much he will
charge to paint the backyard fence,
my fence. “Both sides?” he asks—
as if there are worlds where painting
one side is nothing, especially the side
of your choosing, a beacon of bare wood
visible in all directions. From streetside
or next door. He doesn’t flinch or smile,
but I’m sure he’s kidding. Waiting on him,
I had read an article on artificial intelligence.
And the whole sick run-off about Trump now
strikes me as funny. Until he launches into
what it’s like, or what he says he thinks it’s like,
on The Other Side—having recently passed over
the big-yikes Metaphysical Fence, not the one
for the US-Mexico border. That not nothing.
He thinks he is the only person who can speak
of what he has experienced as a living, breathing
Ohioan. I’m listening how I suppose a painted
fence listens to silence. Yes, both sides, I say.

Donald Trump, God and Guns in Appalachia: Poem

Image of Donald Trump sign in Appalachia

Flood Carries Burning House

Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

The headline says that the story and pictures, a video, were
some editor’s wet dream: not only does a fire floridly trump
everything, there’s an effing flood in one of the dirt-poor places
that believe in a God and guns because, well, what else is there?
My genes are these places. And not in any all-in-your-mind way.
My parents and my grandparents are Appalachian—Kentuckians—
and helped settle the same coal town where Want is a cry sustained.
Sure, I swell with pride when I think of them. But then that passes.

Where is the good in an emblazoned house doing a busted figure-eight
on what you would’ve called a banal creek yesterday and the day before?
Wanting to think of time just after suffering as the source of feelings you
wish wouldn’t pass quickly—is that something we can imprint and pass on?
Maybe it’s chemical, wanting a whole lot of love and sunshine to befall us.
Maybe the vagaries of a life cause recombinations at the level of the DNA
so that what happens next, or doesn’t, alters the gene. And if a whole lot
of such alterations define us as “body wholly body,” to quote Stevens,

then I wish this sort of change a medicine that works in my body,
if not in theirs, to still the voices of the traumatized-for-generations.
On the video, we see the house engulfed. Floodwater is having at
what fire isn’t making short work of, absolutely black smoke
an indicator of nothing. Next time I’m born to people like these,
I’ll complicate things. A hillbilly will challenge Authority. Hill folk
are nothing if not there-is-good-in-there-somewhere types, each
swept along—thank you, Jesus!—by the will-of-God deluge.

for Stevie and Jack

Life Poems by Roy Bentley

 Image of scene from the 1969 movie Easy Rider

Poem for Charlie Potter

If you can believe in reincarnation of the soul,
this time around you’re a man who drinks whisky.
You’re homeless and walking by a river in Ohio.
After weeks—many years, really—of drinking.
All you want is to rest out of the wind and finger
the black-stamped exacta ticket from a lost race
on a morning like any other, an odor of fish-rot

coming off the Olentangy River. You’re there,
and minding your own business, pulling together
your coat as you sit on a bench. This time around,
in this body, you are someone’s uncle brother son.
You don’t note the approaching man until too late
to put up much of a fight. He’s stabbed you so fast
that you don’t so much see a blade as feel it go in.

Nothing noble in your unchoreographed falling.
There’s breathing then much less of it as he goes
through your pockets, his cold hands turning them
out, the pockets. Maybe he kicks you on principle.
Maybe you’re remembered for more than the hour
it takes to slice you, a medical examiner narrating
the elegy of undefended flesh into a microphone.

Venutians Made Me Do It

“Venutians have contacted people in all walks of life—all walks of life.”
—George Hanson, Easy Rider

The L & K isn’t Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights,
but it’s where you go to drink coffee until midnight in ‘69.
Maybe you had to be there back in the day, in Ohio, talk
turning from the war in Vietnam and the whole Getting
the Weak to Have a Go at the Slightly Weaker blather.
Which, come to think of it, is the definition of power:
describing our one-big-black-and-white-movie America
as having the right to reach into the flowering madnesses
at the heart of the whole world. Now the subject switches
to Easy Rider: George Hanson/Jack Nicholson getting high
for the first time on pot. He pronounces the word marijuana
with a Southern accented drawl. Starts talking cosmic crapola.
It’s cause for smiling, George saying it’s common knowledge
that the Venutians are among us. If we’re the slightly weaker,
and the Venutians the weak—like the Vietnamese, maybe—
then, it’s no joke. Maybe why no one laughs about Vietnam.
Now, in unison, two announce, The Venutians made me do it!
and enact some superstitious ritual against bad luck and evil.
No one thinks about evil and good half as much as Ohioans.
Ohioans know about hell but want to be talked into heaven.
Whatever the case, in our booth at our restaurant in Ohio,
we’re asking whether John Lennon might be calling for
open insurrection and bloodletting on the White Album
including an “in” after “Don’t you know that you can
count me out”—we’re reaching for rationality where
there is no rationality. We’re talking about the War
when someone spins a stool en route to a jukebox,
every stride premised on false hope that finishes
as the stars-and-stripes-painted Harley chopper
crashed and on fire by a roadside in the South.

Whatever Small Form of Joy Likeness Equals

Sometimes a thing can seem star-like
when it’s just a star, stripped of whatever small form of joy
likeness equals.
—Carl Phillips, “Stray”

If displays of affection could light up lives,
a bioluminescence, then what I witnessed as
tenderness in the aisles at a Kroger this evening

should have lit up sizable portions of central Ohio
if not the whole of the Northern Hemisphere—
the couple with garrulous offspring brushed

hands in Produce as something like sparks
flew for a sad 60-something pushed along
in her not-quite-handicapped shopping cart.

Not to mention, those separated by geography
or shared failure lingering in Pizza & Desserts
then by the cold light of the milk and butter aisle,

unsayable and indecent truths resplendent in carton
after carton of eggs that are not the estivation of hope.
Which is what I thought, buying tuna to feed my share

of the winter-exhausted feral cats in the neighborhood:
that kindness begets kindness. And hope. Instant karma.
I bought a case of small cans. Went home and forked

the piscine contents into plates at the western edge
of the unglaciated Appalachian Plateau. Not hope
or faith or love exactly but what I could manage.

 

Walking to Fleming Hospital: A Life Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Walking to Fleming Hospital

In the land where coal is king and queen there is a bar,
a big room where miners fight for something to do. Inside
is a framed image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—
by the Men’s Room where discerning Republicans spit,
though never at the face in the frame. Which is what I do.
Because he died, the President, and left me at the head
of a column of miners, striking miners, who faced down
an army that Harry S. Truman called out by executive order.
And so of course there’s someone takes issue with my politics.
Someone “built like a brick shithouse,” as they say. A giant.
The giant is just some unlucky miner who I don’t see coming,
who has made his way past the barstools and two rows of tables
to land a first you’ll-feel-that-tomorrow punch. Which I answer.
I’m holding my own until I hear pop! and then hear myself say,
Sonofabitch shot me! and That damn Johnny Belcher shot me!
Simple miracles, and most family myths, are made of walking
alone at night like this, and to a hospital where a pretty nurse
you went to high school with won’t ask since she knows you,
knows the sort of man you are: how the Potters have done
their share of bar-fighting and dying in eastern Kentucky.
It’s no miracle a man like me wants to live. Enough so
that he drags himself to assistance. Walks in, bleeding.
And I don’t know when I collapse, but I’m on the floor
looking up into lights that pass for Heaven’s gate and
then seeing the nurse hovering, her breasts like hills,
small white hills, the maybe-last-thing I’ll likely see
as a consequence of hawking up and letting fly one
huge you-guessed-it in a dead president’s direction.
I’d have preferred being shot over the pretty nurse
who asks for my next of kin as I whisper Mary.

The Ace Hotel, Los Angeles: A New Poem by Roy Bentley

Image of Jesus Saves sign in downtown Los Angeles

Ace Hotel, Downtown LA Exterior, Jesus Saves Reverse

The reverse of lasting mystery is industrial steel and neon,
shadows crosshatched onto the Chase bank and Broadway,

above the drudgery of believing one god better than another.
From an aerial view, two red words shout across rooftop LA,

in English in all weather, day and night, which is an act of faith
in a realtor who hawked the hotel one unit at a time with always

a dozen wait-listed like first-come-first-serve rooms in Heaven.
Inside, the newest occupants watch Sugar Ray connect and snap

back Jake LaMotta’s head in Raging Bull, though Robert DeNiro
is LaMotta and this Sugar Ray is an actor who unhands the ropes

as blood drips to the canvas and onto his boxing shoes, the blood
that is a checklist of what we gather while asking, What fresh hell

is this? Everywhere else, it’s the unexpected rise of the girl who
could be any of us. You can’t elevate one above another forever

and expect anything but mistrust. Go on. Show me a better god.
I’ll show you a city and messaging constellating above a world

of brutalized actors. Show me the wide, wide shore of sorrow.
I’ll find a place out of the wind where the unlucky can pause

to knock down a wasp nest and grind it into sand-nothing,
porous death belling up as that which the angels unhand.

Photograph by Spencer Lowell.

Stealing Men’s Magazines at 11: Life Poem by Roy Bentley

Cover image of May 1964 Playboy magazine

Stealing Men’s Magazines at 11

It was an ancient springhouse—brick
over a rivulet—and we had discovered it.

And my friend Gary fed the rope and me
down into our tiny clubhouse-as-America,

territory we shared with the neighborhood.
It hurt being trussed up of your own free

will. And I felt as if I were being impaled.
Oscillating, I had to release the Ray-O-Vac

camping lantern I had appropriated. Stolen.
Hand over hand my friend paid out the sack

of me petitioning for the hard work to end.
Then I was standing on a dirt ledge. Then

holding a Playboy from 1965. Hugging it,
my cargo of futurehood older boys had left,

I rose. In the dark the centerfold fell open.
From a blue sky, Gary called out. Pulled

and pulled some more. I was overjoyed.
I felt hands. Then breath. Then the day

or that portion of the hour mostly boy
as secret sharer—if by “secret sharer”

we mean what a soul weighs in Ohio,
given that blackness is where we go

before being conveyed to the surface
with dubious, light-struck treasure.

Memories of Eastern Kentucky and the Jersey Shore: Meditations on Loss In Life-Poems by Roy Bentley

Image of "October Piece," 1969 print by Peter Milton

“October Piece,” 1969 print by Peter Milton

Railroad Depot at Fleming, Kentucky: November, 1915

It would have been a gunmetal gray rail line for snakes
to cross but no snake visible. It would have been beautiful,
the cloud-veil of locomotive breath. And starlight-struck.
Behind the depot: laurel thickets. A sign for horse feed.
Denuded limbs would gray the hills, the shadow train
in the right of way speeding alongside an actual train.

There’s horizon, and there’s red-poppy-colored light
on the platform, and a man would have patted a pocket
of his overalls for the fresh tin of Prince Albert tobacco.
I want to hold title to those rich acres in the bottomland
and I want no one to hold title to it but for wildflowers
to grow at the side of a wagon-furrowed road. I want

to watch my dear dead waltz into Paradise, spirit-
heads high, setting aside histories as they commence
stepping off distances to build houses. Towns. Cities.
In 100 years these may talk the pace of human rights
and Snow on the Mountain Fall Blooming Camellia
as a symbol of expectation in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Today, the locomotive is taking on water. Its engineer
slouches. Maybe he smells wood or coal smoke or both.
See other men rising to their full heights. Hear the voices
separate extant pain from the gorgeously swaddled world.
See the white-haired man with the scratched, blue suitcase.
Each of these has felt one recent grief fresh upon waking.

Gloryland Effect

My grandmother Potter said her son Earl died from a gunshot wound.
Said that Johnny Belcher had shot him—Earl—in a bar in Kentucky.
She showed me the 8 x 10 of Earl in army uniform, visor cap cocked
on his head, the cap more than broken in with wear on parade grounds
and on leave after battles, a glow about his handsome long-dead face.
She called that sepia glow the Gloryland Effect. I was falling asleep
the first time she handed me the photograph, and I dreamed of him,
my murdered uncle who read Zane Grey and fathered children
before a single bullet in his liver ended his dreams, if he had any.
I dreamed of him in a place I supposed was heaven or the Afterlife.
In one of those whispers for which the dead in dreams are famous,
he said I should be careful growing up. Said I should love her for him,
my grandmother, his mother with a wide center part in her gray hair.
And I woke with that 8 x 10 vanished into her Samsonite suitcase.
I called her and she came to me, having traveled at the speed of love
after many losses; some great, some less so. She spoke and I knew
each of us has a glowing soul of which we never stop speaking.

Members of the Primitive Baptist Church
Attend a Creek Baptism by Submersion

The line of worshipers collects by an August creek bank.
Their song goes Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful
the beautiful river . . . The creek isn’t much during summer,
though it will all but cover a convert to his or her waist.
A woman in white is holding a man’s fedora. Another
is wading out from the bank into russet-colored water.
Frances Collier Potter is here, hair bobby-pinned up.

In epistolary First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says
that the hair of any woman is her glory and covering.
Her pastor says it says that. Adds salvation is no joke.
If it is a joke, grace, the punchline is accepting Christ
with the faith of a child: meaning as blindly trusting
as anyone, male or female, gets in Letcher County.

Ask anyone about Letcher County and you’ll hear
that if God plays favorites, this isn’t one of those.
Ask about the Redeemer any time but don’t ask
Frances Collier Potter about a child she lowered
into black as familiar as the slap from a brother
or husband. In the fish-slaughtering coal mine
run-off, closer to an understanding of laurels

than the supernatural, she lets go the memory
of star thistles of frost on glass after the death.
Even if it’s true that good moonshine covers
a multitude of sins, this is the wrong woman
to fuck with. Glory or no glory, she hikes up
her cotton robes and goes in to put one eye
to the task of keyholing the door to mercy.

The Universe as Drunk Girlfriend

Unchecked, she opens an event horizon of a mouth
and out it comes: the turd-in-the-punchbowl analogy
disbursing both the n-word and a sexual metaphor
involving black holes. Occasionally, a side boob
will tease in the way that the God particle does—
dancing a waltz with Mind, a roiling tango. Maybe
the reason that suffering surrounds her has to do
with a mother dropping dead in an airport in Ohio
and then a father running off with a plate-spinner

who performed before The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
Singularities and space-time rifts were born in her,
though her singular nature comes with firecrackers.
Matches with archangels on the matchbook cover.
Though there are no instructions in any language,
there are some who say the fuse is labeled After
lighting, run. If there is Spirit, hers dances—
with or without a partner and music. Hearts
like hers stagger around backstage at rehearsals

waiting for the next big bang-boom. A beauty,
she is some piece of work. Remember the time
she ran over that dog, then asked you to get out
and see just what sort of damage she had done?
Remember how much you loved her, her mystery
and how, in her wake, it collected as pockets of
absence? Lately, they say she travels with a cat.
A fat tabby she’s named The Strength of Lies.
The animal is reportedly fond of starscapes.

Huckleberry Finn Wanders into Westeros

I was 17 and three days a runaway when I stole Life
on the Mississippi from Becky Thatcher’s Bookstore
on North Main Street in Hannibal, Missouri. The spine
of a Penguin paperback read New American Library.
Outside, it was a blue-sky May afternoon and I was
an hour too late to be admitted to the home of Sam
Clemens’ childhood sweetheart, Laura Hawkins.
All right, 40 years later I’m at Lefty’s Tavern
near the Jersey Shore. Checking voicemails.
And I want to hear above the Game of Thrones-
themed wedding they’re hosting. Third playback,
I hear Results came back negative. No cancer.
And I order a Rebel IPA. Toast the revelers.
If Jorah Mormont is battling greyscale carriers,
stonemen, his best man the dwarf Tyrion Lannister
dodging death by a thousand cuts from paper swords,
it isn’t on the Mississippi. And if Huck and Jim put in
anywhere in Westeros, Jim gets beheaded or lynched,
left to twist as a species of strange, unspecified fruit.
But at Lefty’s Tavern, the news is all good. A bride-
as-Daenerys-Targaryen, cleavaged, three firedrakes
in attendance by a spray of long-stemmed red roses,
is trying to shoplift bliss, the new American variety.
In that story, a queen walks dragon eggs from fire
and a knight-protector is mesmerized forever after,
a runaway slaver risen from the ashes of disgrace.
In make-believe, all ravens are starlight-throated;
in Barnegat, you steal cable and park a Cadillac
on cinderblocks behind Lefty’s. Fantastic is as
fantastic does. If the body is a raft, then those
borne along on it rate at least one dragon egg
above a drone of messages it’s hard to hear.

“October Piece” (1969), the illustrative image evoking John Steinbeck’s California boyhood and Roy Bentley’s memory of a train depot in Kentucky, is a popular print by the critically acclaimed contemporary American artist Peter Milton.—Ed.