(Wilkes-Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, 2019)
Historically minded and introspective of both the culture of the landscapes and the people who inhabit them, Stephen Benz’ “Topographies” is a vivid and engaging collection of overlooked places and history. Benz travels widely from the Florida Everglades to the Moldovan post-Communist landscape, the deserts of the American West and to the streets of Central America.
The collection is divided into two parts, the first being Reading the American Landscape, in which Benz treks through the Everglades, portions of the Oregon Trail, and several stops in what Benz refers to as “unapproachable” towns. Taken from Emerson’s essay, “Experience” about “unapproachable America,” Benz uses these off-map places to uncover the disassociation between the American town ‘ideal’ that only exists in imagination, and the actual place, that is often only a shell of its imaginative self. The second part, Ground Truthing, reviews the cultural aspects of Benz’ experiences living abroad in Moldova, Cuba, and Guatemala, covering aspects of the culture from the deterioration of post-communism to the motorway habits and lifestyles of the inhabitants.
In the eight essays on the U.S, Benz takes a landscape, usually somewhere that has become touristy or campy, and unearths the alluring and often grim history of what’s happened under the feet of the unsuspecting vacationer. For example, in “A Lost Grave in the Everglades,” Benz is searching for the burial plot of a murdered game warden from the 1890s. Part environmental, part history, Benz explains the 19th century fashion obsession with feathers, a trend that nearly wiped out Florida’s egret population in the 1880s/90s, and the subsequent game wardens positioned to help protect the nesting birds. It’s no spoiler to say that the game warden Benz is looking for was murdered for protecting the birds, and was hastily buried out in marshes of the Everglades. The essay seeks to bring a name and a story to this martyr whose body was never recovered due to the shifting nature of marshes over time, and Benz tells it with a warmth and intimacy that both intrigues and horrifies.
In Ground Truthing, each essay unearths the aftermath of governmental upheavals or negligence, but with the heartfelt understanding that people still live there. Benz is never preachy in these pieces, nor does he seek to impose his American lens on the cultures or values of the people he speaks with. He’s a student of the environment, taking in everything he can, talking to the locals, learning their language, and participating in the day-to-day experiences that create their lives. But he also remains introspective, utilizing his own feelings and understandings about the history of these places to open a door to a landscape that may be difficult for the reader to fully comprehend. In Land of the Lost, for instance, Benz takes a long look at the price Moldovans pay to be a ‘capitalist’ country, since the Russian communist pull-out left the new country destitute and at war with itself. Even ten years later, when Benz goes to guest teach at the Moldova University, the abject poverty and desperation are palpable through the text. Offsetting the stark and unequivocal reality of these spaces, though, is always Benz’ warm prose and often funny asides as he navigates his way.
| | |
Abagail Belcastro has a Masters in Fiction with Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is a reader for TLR and a teaching assistant with FDU’s Creative Writing department. Her essay, “A Time for Fantasy” is published with Fiction Southeast.