By Julien Poirier
The first thing you need to know about Ben Hollander is that he was a truly original writer, a one-of-a-kind stylist whose books don’t resemble anyone else’s. Early last year when Ben and I were just becoming friends but before we’d actually met in person, he sent me a copy of Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli, which I read over the course of a few nights. The book is a landscape of parallel texts, dialectical magic knots, snapshots of Santa in Palestine, Texas; Marx Brothers quotes, palimpsests and political arguments. In fact the whole book could be read as a family argument taking place at the human table, after dinner but before the kids go down. Ben’s wit fashions the book into a periscope for seeing around corners in the mind. And then there’s In the House Un-American, which David Shapiro calls a “masterpiece,” going on to say, “A book of this order comes very rarely to our consciousness.”
I think over time Ben’s work will be discovered by more people—maybe not a ton more but more, and that these readers will cherish the work he left us and see it as a source of intellectual and spiritual rejuvenation. His books have the auras of living systems—I mean, even if I don’t happen to be re-reading Rituals at the moment, but just inadvertently glance at the spine on the shelf, I tingle with its life force: What we have here is a supersensitive substance ready to receive my changing mind. Ben’s restless prose relates directly to his morals, his suspicion of answers as endpoints. The reader is the endpoint of his stories. And he happens to be a very good storyteller who knows the ropes—whether in a poem, essay, anecdote or swirl of all three—even when he’s chewing your ear off like Harpo Marx v. Mike Tyson.
When I finally met him outside of the covers—outside of the hours and hours of email conversations we’d clocked (always about words, our immigrant families, ethnic identity, poetry politics)—I found myself completely at home in his presence. It was raining in North Beach when he bought me a slice and a cappuccino at Piccolo Forno. We jawed about poetry for an hour. Later that night we were back at it online. He had a much broader knowledge of poetry than I did. When he mentioned someone I hadn’t heard of he would say, “Oh you’ve got to read her! and then check out…”
Ben and I only got a chance to hang out four or five times before he died of brain cancer in November. In our phone conversations, he tracked the terminal disease with black humor. I still haven’t let his death sink in.
Piccolo Forno was his spot and the last time I saw him it was there, over big bowls of strawberry ice cream that he bought for my daughters. It was an impromptu meeting after mediocre lunch that my girls and I had had elsewhere, and Ben deepened his hangdog lineaments to show me how sorry he was for us that we’d had to stomach subpar pizza.
“I could’ve told you…” he said gently.
He left a real impression on my girls.
One more thing: Ben really cared about poetry. He believed poetry was an artform that could liberate our minds and even our bodies. He didn’t have much patience for poetry that wasn’t taking us in that direction. In addition to being a introspective experimenter, he was also a provocateur and even a showman—a blower of poison-dart essays and very strange critical-poetic rhizome texts designed to out-meta even the brainiest of conceptual contortionists. He was funny, brilliant, wordy, weird, amazingly generous and always impossibly no one but Ben.
Groucho would have loved him.
-February 2, 2017
There will be a Ben Hollander memorial tribute reading at the Unitarian Church on Franklin & Geary in San Francisco this Sunday, February 5th at 6:30PM, presented by the Poetry Center at SF State University.
Participants include George Albon, Charles Alexander, Todd Baron, Arthur Bierman, William Cirocco, Norma Cole, Chris Daniels, Steve Dickison, Elise Ficarra, Susan Gevirtz, Jack Hirschman, David Lau, Duncan McNaughton, Sarah Menefee, Laura Moriarty, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Michael Palmer, Julien Poirier, John Sakkis, Len Shneyder, Richard B. Simon, Susan Thackrey, and Siamak Vossoughi.
Ben Hollander’s last book review was for Julien Poirier’s book Out of Print, published posthumously in Boston Review.