Cymbals by Ben Estes


The range of sights and sounds in Cymbals by Ben Estes mirrors the effects of that of the actual thin, percussive instruments known for their shimmer and shatter. Amidst the sustain, Cymbals uses repetition, chopped refrain and spacing to conceptualize, I think, ideas about vulnerability. By mixing meaning and possibility, between music as an invaluable yet fleeting force, we have a brawl of images (flowers, vases, rabbits, paintings and instruments) playing and crashing as language.

The poetry requires navigation, pursuit and activated thinking. Reading Cymbals is difficult because readers are, in many ways, de-prioritized. The reader who engages, rummages. There are threads and weaves of moments appearing in and out of the text, though, these are hard to follow because they’re identifiable but cut up and mashed up en masse. That is, words and then ideas appear enjambed and diced all at once. Estes creates a seemingly unreliable speaker, but rather, the speaker is almost omniscient and occupies many spaces, emotional states and activities at once, blurring and eluding omniscience. And isn’t that an aspect of vulnerability? Where the effects of repetition and the push-and-pull of sifting through meanings, then criss-cross with the potential to cross out and hone in on one sensibility. Mapping the various moments becomes futile, so navigating and thinking on your own accord seems preferable as you read on.

There are outstanding lines that build upon itself and conceptualize the reflexivity of language. For example:

come and go    Come and go and go and   Never as

much as thought    As much as I thought  it went

and came   and went

These lines and caesura host linguistic pattern and stupefy the reader as a result. However, because I think the reader participates in thought and search and less so in reaction and affect, Estes might be siding and sharing poetic space with pure conceptualist poets.

Saying it made it honest   and it made it   and it

was honest  and it made it so   and it said it was

What it was was vulnerable: passing the seconds

before arriving in the tired town

One might say that vulnerability is honesty and risk. Estes plays with and marries sights and sounds to re-think the position of language as a vehicle for simultaneous utterances, where emotions might act as phonemes and allophones for words in the text. Furthermore, at risk is an underlying (almost buried, but vibrating) thread I followed about “the boy who is hard with hope” (verse 2, page 5) and under the instruction of a speaker-conductor. When I followed a “he” thread (though it was spliced and entwined with others), the boy seemed to symbolize a musician’s hunger as it meets others’ disapproval, which draws out and incites multiple, complex responses to seeking honesty.

Others should read Cymbals in the practice of poets Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place who write that “pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to ‘read’ the work as much as think about the idea of the work.” I think this will best guide readers or rummagers into the tremulous place of vulnerability.

Download Cymbals for free at The Song Cave

Janice Sapigao is a Pinay poet, writer and educator born and raised in San Jose, CA. She earned her MFA in Critical Studies/Writing from CalArts. She co-founded an open mic in Los Angeles called the Sunday Jump. She currently lives in the Bay Area and teaches at Skyline College and San Jose City College. Please visit her website at

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