Temper, by Beth Bachmann. University of Pittsburgh Press, 80 pp., $14.95.
Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Alice James Books, 61 pp., $15.95.
Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, by Paula Bohince. Sarabande Books, 88 pp., $14.95.
Death's history was long, but the country was young. Thus, when confronted by the assassination of his beloved President at Ford's Theatre on Good Friday 1865, how would Walt Whitman—America's most public poet—respond? Although best known for his frank celebration of the body and its sensuality, as well as the democratic treatment of fellow citizens and terrain, Whitman had written in the elegiac mode prior to Abraham Lincoln's passing. "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death," Whitman asserted in Song of Myself. "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
Lincoln's, of course, was the unluckiest of deaths. It was murder—privately plotted, and then executed on a public stage. Met with national tragedy, Whitman's singing changed. In "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," composed immediately after the assassination, Whitman asks,
In these lines we find not the steadfast affirmations made by the singer of Song of Myself, but the questions of a more hesitant speaker, one who wonders how best to "warble," how to "deck [his] song." No longer certain that Lincoln is "alive and well somewhere," rising as the grass of his grave's "beautiful uncut hair" (Song of Myself), Whitman reaches a crisis. It's as if the assassin's cruel hands have rendered the poet as powerless as the dead President. Even elegy itself—a mode that imaginatively resurrects the dead, thereby granting lyric immortality—has been tainted by the dark facts of murder.
Of course, Lincoln was a public figure—perhaps the most public American figure of the nineteenth century—and Whitman's outpouring of grief was equally and appropriately civic. "When Lilacs," for example, reflects not only the poet's sorrow but also that of the country, cataloguing its "crape-veil'd women," "the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads," and "tolling bells' perpetual clang" as the Presidential coffin passes via train "through lanes and streets, / Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land" (section 6). While elegies like Whitman's have long uttered a communal cry, the mode also confronts loss at the private level. In Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—" the "stiff Heart questions" whether it can survive grief's darkness. The final stanza declares,
Throughout the poem, emotional anguish itself becomes an assassin or at the very least a deadly adversary. The "Hour of Lead" is, in fact, so hazardous and debilitating it isn't necessarily survived (see conditional "if outlived" in line eleven, emphasis mine). Dickinson, however, not only warns of grief's life-threatening potential; she also provides a clear and devastating account of its physical and psychological stages via the poem's final line: "First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—." Because we don't know whether the "Freezing persons" will even survive to "recollect the Snow," their "letting go" becomes particularly disturbing. While Dickinson suggests some sort of surrender, it's unclear whether the last phrase indicates emotional liberation (grief's survival) or the ultimate capitulation, one forcing the "Heart" to forever "stiffen."
Recent collections by Beth Bachmann, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, and Paula Bohince demonstrate the respective stages of grief so eloquently lyricized by Dickinson. Using elegy as a primary means of considering the deceased, each author confronts the devastation and terror that follows a loved one's murder. In Temper, an eighteen-year-old girl is killed near railroad tracks and survived by her older sister, as well as her father (who's suspected of the crime). Slamming Open the Door charts a mother's sorrow and rage following the strangulation of her adopted daughter. A woman tries to make sense of the Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods by returning years later to the remote Pennsylvania farm where her father was shot by hired workers.
History tells us that Abraham Lincoln died shortly after 7:00 a.m. on April 15, 1865. But what of the sister, daughter, and father in poems by Bachmann, Bonanno, and Bohince? Are these real-life losses, or figures of artistic invention? Whereas Bonanno makes clear the autobiographical nature of Slamming Open the Door—a close-up photo of the author's elegized daughter serves as the collection's epigraph—Bachmann's and Bohince's book-length elegies aren't necessarily transcriptions of experience. Bachmann's poems, for example, investigate not only a sibling's death, but forms of physical desecration in art, literature, nature, and culture. Bohince, on the other hand, relies on constructed personas and varied poetic structures to explore the chronic hardships of a particular place. All too real or partially imagined, what matters most about the tragedies explored in Temper, Slamming Open the Door, and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods is that the deep psychological shock and sense of powerlessness exemplified by Whitman in "When Lilacs" become lyrically imprinted. Whether chilled by forensic facts, staggering in a state of emotional stupor, empathetically imagining, or struggling to let go of the past, the poets press elegy's familiar tactics and, by example, expose both its pitfalls and its powerful effects.
Temper begins with judgment. Its opening verdict, however, brings anything but deliverance. Shifting poem to poem from first- to third-person, the book conflates its author's history with that of seemingly fictive scenarios and personages. Although the line between fact and invention isn't always clear, just ten syllables into the collection Beth Bachmann's readers witness a smoldering condemnation: "Some things," pronounces the title poem's opening line, "are damned to erupt like wildfire." An epigraph from Wallace Stevens—"...the imperfect is so hot in us..."—turns the thermostat even higher. Thus, first impressions suggest that the elegiac movement of Temper is predominantly one of descent, a journey moving down toward that "pyre, bonfire / where pale strips of bark peel back and burn" ("Woodpile"). From time to time the book's "words rise as though spoken, boiled" ("Second Mystery of My Father"). Nevertheless, the average temperature of Bachmann's poems runs closer to that of Dickinson's; that is, they burn cold from the inside out, most often reading "zero at the bone" (Dickinson, "A narrow Fellow in the grass").
The chill felt throughout Temper is partly tonal. Whether a sister's self-protective need to curtail the disturbing details surrounding her sibling's murder or a poet's natural inclination toward understatement, the collection's matter-of-factness is commanding. "I want to tell you a story..." writes Bachmann:
What's lost in the above excerpt from "Paternoster" is its imagistic framework. The poem, in fact, opens by defining its title as "the word for a line with a series of hooks [that] also means the recitation of a prayer." Stated simply, the poem's overall strategy is this: etymological exploration leads toward a narrative end whereby Bachmann introduces a murder. I've isolated the aforementioned lines, however, to demonstrate a critical point: despite its subject matter's dramatic potential—imagine the theatrical voiceovers peppering similar stories covered by weekly programs like Dateline and 20/20—this passage is as sensationalistic as Temper gets. In other words, by using a combination of emotional restraint and lyric compression, Bachmann creates enough distance between herself and the subject matter to avoid exploiting the sordid and graphic details associated with the sister's death, as well as the crime's more obvious dramatic tensions.
The body of my sister. The tracks. One suspect—our father. Such phrases hang over each of Temper's poems, casting a cool shadow. While the collection's first section expands its readers' knowledge of the central event and its aftermath, Bachmann consistently juxtaposes poems featuring what appears to be her own sister with those depicting anonymous women. Consider, for example, a poem like "Sorrowful Mystery," reprinted here in its entirety:
Like "Sorrowful Mystery," the majority of the poems in Temper run six to ten lines—enough for Bachmann to demonstrate a talent for lyric compression. Vacillation between abstraction and image quickly establishes narrative tension. While the "something ancient" burrowing "into the girl / left for dead" in the above example is ambiguous at best—is it death itself, some merciful angel, a scavenging animal?—what follows is the precise characterization of an "opossum's tongue" as it "grazes her lip, / brushes the soft hair on her neck." That Bachmann chooses an opossum, that animal known to "play dead" when attacked, increases the reader's compassion for the victim: is there a sliver of hope she's not really lifeless, but merely "stoned past / the point of reflex"? The meaning of "stoned" also works toward multiple ends. The word suggests both the girl's intoxication and a form of corporal punishment. Although the opossum's actions are gentle, almost sensual, we're told it lacks sympathy; like the body it grazes, the animal is "unable now to see anything / other than what must be an opening." Here, Bachmann again mines ambiguity: the language used to describe the opossum's blind foraging also depicts the dying girl. Thanks to enjambment, "It's light" that she sees during her final moments. As if the primary scene weren't moving enough, Bachmann then shifts "back home," where the victim's family rests. And even though "it'll be hours before anyone stirs," unlike the girl, ironically, they will stir, rising from one darkness into another.
The poem's title invokes the Catholic rosary, that meditative and devotional prayer cycle underscoring divine mysteries throughout the history of salvation. Repeatedly in Temper, Bachmann borrows and adapts the ritual's categorical terms—Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, Glorious—in poems such as "First Mystery of My Sister," "Joyous Mystery," "Answer to the Mystery of My Blank Stare," and "Mystery Ending with a Girl in a Field." While the religious language of such titles is pronounced, the poems' content lacks overt spiritual gestures. When they do occur, biblical brushstrokes seem more like residue from the elegy's tradition of imaginative resurrection, rather than some rhetorical validation of faith. In fact, Bachmann calls the very idea of salvation into question:
As when the speaker tosses back toward heaven what are most likely doves—traditional symbols of faith and hope—the Christian gestures in Temper don't provide consolation. Nor do they acknowledge God's redemption. Instead, Bachmann uses such symbols to express spiritual doubt, admitting, "Some would call this heaven—a teenage girl half-naked / in the grass. For all I know, they might be right" ("Heaven").
It's no coincidence that Temper ends its first section in a violent, eroticized version of heaven, in a poem by that title, and concludes its third and final chapter with "Elegy." In addition to destabilizing the myths of afterlife and redemption, Bachmann also questions poetic tradition itself. Although the book's primary occasion is most certainly loss, until the last possible moment Temper delays identifying itself strictly as elegy. When it does make that identification, however, the mode's myth-making is undermined:
No shepherds. No nymphs. In the poem's first line, Bachmann erases the form's long-standing connection to pagan and romantic symbols. A concession, "Maybe just one," follows, however. This turn allows Bachmann to introduce "the girl the fawn strips like a fisherman's rose." Although for an instant death seems to have the upper hand, it loses footing in the third enjambed line. As suggested via word play, "Death ... can no longer lie"; Bachmann, in other words, refuses to allow death to rest. What's more, she will not accept its deception.
It's clear to me that the poem's title identifies not only its form, but its secondary subject as well. "Elegy," in other words, comments not only on the death of a particular girl, but on the limitations of the very poetic model prescribed to lyricize the deceased. Read this way, it is elegy itself—part lamentation, part consolation—whose mouth is bloodied in line three, and whom the poet won't let "lie." Bachmann goes on to describe elegy's waters as "filthy / with silver fish sticky with leeches. Lovesick...." Via this image, we recognize the corroded form as an inadequate means of salvaging the girl from death's grip. Although Temper recognizes that it can't bring the beloved back from obscurity, it does build a monument from imagination. What's striking about the collection is the extent to which its reader can feel the structure's chilling marble. Bachmann isn't a classical hero revisiting and then rescuing a loved one from hell. Frankly, she doesn't try to be. Yet, she is heroic: her singing resonates beyond the elegy's often idealized myths and pastorals, and echoes something colder—something that approximates "the acoustics of the finch's song after a tear / in its vocal cord" ("Luminous Mystery").
Whereas Bachmann's reluctance to disclose creates a chilling psychology, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno depicts grief's maddening effects without hesitation. Unlike Temper, whose subject matter broadens to include depictions of women and violence in history and art, Slamming Open the Door remains focused on the daughter for and about whom the book is written. If Bachmann labors to avoid examining details of a sibling's murder, Bonanno sees her child's apparition seemingly everywhere. The poems operate primarily in the conversational mode, as in "Birthday Poem":
Taken over time, however, this casual tone reveals an almost obsessive quality, one that reflects the depth of a parent's sorrow following such loss. In Slamming Open the Door, grief knows no bounds: ordinary activities such as running errands or sipping tea are tinged with as much heartache as facing the killer's mother after the trial verdict is read. Ultimately, what Bonanno confronts each hour following Leidy's strangulation is the kind of waking stupor Dickinson describes in "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—," a condition for which there seems little consolation or cure. "Excuse me, excuse me," the poet asks in varied ways throughout the collection, "can you tell me / where to turn?" ("Red Saturn").
One of the difficulties of writing a book-length elegy is shaping the material so that it transcends its occasion, giving the poems a purpose and meaning beyond catharsis. The difficulty of reviewing a book like Slamming Open the Door is separating deep sympathy for the author's unimaginable loss from the ethos of her poetry. At her best, Bonanno uses details from the aftermath of the crime to enact grief's debilitating hold. "The Hair," for example, describes "Bernadette in blue jeans, / and Suzanne in her swishy skirt and boots" as they divide "one healthy hank of [Leidy's] hair" cut off for preservation. The women,
The care with which Suzanne and Bernadette handle the tresses mirrors those intimate moments of childhood when mothers primp and care for their daughters. Although Leidy Sheeder Bonanno was an adult at the time of her death, the above lines call to mind those precious years of girlhood in which she may have worn "curling bundles" that "smell[ed] like honeysuckle." The poem's final stanza is particularly rich in pathos. After the women divide the hair into three boxes whose materials are of various worth, they place the remaining strands in the most valuable object of all—a funerary locket—thereby performing a ritual dating back to ancient times. The necklace's fastening, however, takes on added significance: echoing Leidy's death by strangulation, the locket simultaneously reflects a mother's love for her daughter, as well as sorrow's permanent chokehold.
In "The Hair," the final stanza opens out rather than slamming shut. Even so, this mining of image in order to create various levels of tension is the exception in Slamming Open the Door. More often than not, Bonanno's poems simply restage dramatic events, or offer anecdotes about the murder and its aftermath. "Woman Strangled," for instance, draws its language from a newspaper article; not surprisingly, the language reads as lineated prose. Flatter still are many of the poems' endings, like that of "What People Give You," which after charting the "Long-faced irises," "water crackers and tiny jams" offered as condolences, concludes by characterizing those well-intended sympathizers who,
As readers, we know from the collection's first poem that nothing will bring Bonanno's "daughter back." Unfortunately, what's catalogued in four preceding stanzas doesn't complicate the final lines. Although the circumstances surrounding "What People Give You" are tragic, the revelation that one's daughter is irreplaceable is obvious.
The type of declarative utterance that concludes "What People Give You" recurs throughout Slamming Open the Door. Is such assertion a syntactic attempt to orchestrate an end to the grief, an end the poet fears may never be reached? Although it's impossible to know, what becomes clear is Bonanno's preference for precise and exacting structural closure. While enjambment typically facilitates hesitation and suspense via syntactical disruption, for example, Bonanno most often breaks lines into neat, logical clusters that summarize plot:
Bonanno also tends to emphasize narrative points via accumulated end-stops. In such cases, the sentences amass difficult facts or painful memories, striking the reader with relentless blows of pathos. "Meeting You, Age Four" recounts the parents' early introduction to the girl who would become their adopted daughter. In this example, the surefootedness of the sentences reflects the adults' fresh though already steadfast feelings for the child, while also conveying via the present tense the past's enduring imprint:
After four successive declarative/narrative sentences—subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb—Bonanno's personification of the whirring ball is a welcome shift. The "little" object introduced in the penultimate line literally refers to some "funny sound ... / from under the inscrutable hood" of the car, but is also a figurative nod toward the couple's own emotional engine. As in poems such as Stanley Kunitz's "Touch Me" ("What makes the engine go? / Desire, desire, desire"), Bonanno exploits repetition to sonically enact the heart's continual thumping. The recurrence of "we want you" further underscores the couple's great desire to take home the girl with "a sober little chin" waving goodbye from the parking lot.
In his essay "The Elegy's Structures," D.A. Powell describes a poetry that "gives in to grief and will not be consoled." Slamming Open the Door certainly falls into this category. According to Powell, "one must think of the complex psychology of loss and remember that anger and denial are the first steps of grieving." More common to the collection than denial is Bonanno's expression of rage. When prompted by her minister in "Communion" to forgive, for example, the speaker responds by "hoisting the cup of wine" and toasting "Here's to hate." "Don't fuck with me now," the poet warns the stranger who, after "The Verdict Is In," "decides to get a good seat / in the front row..." reserved exclusively for family. In "Sticks and Stones," Bonanno targets her daughter's murderer directly:
Throughout Slamming Open the Door, words are a mother's weapon against not only her daughter's assailant, but also the potentially lethal opponent that is grief. The mother in Slamming Open the Door can't quite see past the details of her daughter's death—and shouldn't have to. The poet, however, too often restages the story of a murder without complicating the material or providing additional layers of meaning. As a result, Slamming Open the Door reads more like memoir; that is, an expository synopsis of private experience. Robert Lowell is said to have remarked that a poem is "an event, not the record of an event" (emphasis mine). Rather than an event in itself, Bonanno's book is the personal summation of tragic events and their aftermath, and an expelling of grief into language. This isn't to say Bonanno's work isn't moving. Its intimacy and rawness are undeniable, as is its author's unflinching candor. In considering the collection's limitations, however, the reader witnesses one of the elegy's greatest challenges: finding language fresh and complex enough in both its music and meaning to transform private suffering into more than an act of catharsis.
Of the three collections, Paula Bohince's Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods most consistently utilizes elegy's traditional pastoral symbols. While frequently located on the sheep-filled fields of a familial homestead, Incident is neither Percy Bysshe Shelley's grief-saturated "Adonais" nor John Milton's intellectualized "Lycidas." Instead, Bohince uses economic language to question and lament a deceased father. Put simply, the collection's speaker revisits the past in an effort to make sense of its overt and ambiguous complexities—and then moves forward. Bohince's publisher, Sarabande Books, describes the narrative arc of Incident as "a kind of mystery novel." Its "mystery," however, isn't limited solely to a parent's murder. Rather, Bohince exploits elegy's long-standing pastoral concerns as a lens through which to explore the greater mysteries of family history, crime, a woman's legacy, a daughter's resolve, betrayal, spiritual defiance, lust, suffering, and survival. Declares the poet, "This pasture is owned by a ghost / who turns meaner each hour" ("Silhouette"). It is on such haunted ground that Bohince recognizes the meanness in all things—living and deceased—as well as the inborn and inescapable tensions between shadow and light. Accepting such tensions allows the book's central figure to finally let go of her father's brutal death, saying "yes, pain and yes, grief, / but also grace" ("Charity").
Archetypal elegies often open with invocations of the muse. Incident replaces this classic gesture with Bohince's version of prayer, a lyric poem by that title that blurs the identities of God the Father and father the deceased. "I've kept our appointment / in the barn," offers the speaker, as if honoring a contract, "board after board of pine / hewn by us." After populating the structure with bird and beast—that "chickadee / who stutters in, a little obsessed" and "the pig we chose / for his mildness" smiling "in his waste"—Bohince reluctantly concludes,
That the dialogue is one-sided is telling: the speaker's unanswered plea imparts spiritual and psychological dilemmas. How long, begs the poem, can one endure silence and seclusion? Ultimately, whether "father"—lowercase "f"—refers to God or to the speaker's parent matters not. What's clear from Bohince's introductory lyric is that absence is the collection's central crisis.
Unlike the other books under review here, Incident doesn't immediately disclose the circumstances surrounding the father's nonappearance. Although clearly missing and mourned, his absence colors the atmosphere like a fox half visible in rain, "each flaming hair / a lit filament" ("Where Radio Fails"). The murder itself is finally revealed in the sixteenth poem—and only after readers enter the book's second section. In "The Apostles," Bohince introduces paid laborers John, Lucas, and Paul,
In these lines and elsewhere, Bohince makes clear that social and economic divisions separating the workers from their employer are thin at best. As it turns out, the man "shot through the ribs" and left by "to bleed in his bed" has a great deal in common with "The Apostles" who betray him. "Trespass," for example, reveals the father's own criminal history:
By means of a primarily trochaic sentence—one whose metrical scheme, like the convicted man, is destined to fall—Bohince restages a remarkable father-daughter reunion. Although one assumes this reconciliation is a happy event, Bohince steeps the surrounding imagery in decay. According to the opening stanza (above), the event takes place during a natural crisis; that is, a chronic water shortage inhibiting growth. The pasture itself is in ruins, its flowers "crushed," its skeletons "sun-stripped." Juxtaposed with the passive construction "Father's paroled," active verbs such as "stealing" and "taking" gain additional emphasis. The daughter is likewise passive, modeling her father as he pilfers "skull, rib, sternum, spine" to whittle into earrings and candlesticks. Although built from four descriptive and declarative sentences, "Trespass" implies a single question: can an ex-convict-like the sun-bleached bones—be transformed into something worthy, namely a productive father and citizen? However indirectly, Bohince offers readers an answer. As "the dead / rise," she confesses, "we forget to be afraid, / thinking only of profit, new lives."
The girl in "Trespass" gains paternal intimacy by stealing, thereby committing the very crime that originally estranged her from her father. Absence and presence, parent and child, wrong and right: throughout Incident, Bohince explores such tensions in a variety of poetic forms. Assailants John, Lucas, and Paul speak through personas, a device Bohince exploits to lend the culprits dimensionality and humanity. "Farm Triptych" moves from the "swampy length" of a remembered pond to the action of splitting logs, then finally arrives at a place where time is suspended, where the speaker is again "... with him, in the barn / damp with birdsong, thrushes thrilling the eaves, / air perfected by oat-dust, the sweetness / of kerosene." The poet also incorporates several acrostics, a form in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, name, or phrase when read vertically, as in "Acrostic: Outhouse":
As in much of Incident, in this poem conversion plays a critical role. A single sentence contains at least a half dozen transformations: ancestors become lacework, needles replace husbands, men turn to thread, cloth flowers grow into living roses that soon become fodder for beetles. Finally, the outhouse itself is altered as wild flora seasonally hem in its walls.
Much like the women in "Acrostic: Outhouse," those "stooping aunts / tatting lace all day," Bohince makes "gems" from "obsession." Throughout Incident, she "thread[s] wholly into white roses" not just a fatally-wounded father, but entire generations of "children, / uncles and great-uncles." As a result, the collection transcends book-length elegy and becomes more than a meditation on private loss and a source of consolation. Although sometimes paralyzed by the sorrow of Bayonet Woods, Bohince pushes through its darkest places and discovers a clearing. She finally finds closure in "Charity," a poem that recalls an attempt to save a drowning lamb. "When I cry," claims the speaker, "I can hear her still / crying in the loam." Although the pair admittedly weeps from fear and grief, they are ultimately left "dazzled by white flowers." Such beauty demonstrates the collection's main principle: that we are "allotted / for each gift one brutality / for balance." It's Bohince's balanced examination of what's taken away and what's given over a lifetime that allows her readers to hear the faint beginnings of closure, those "gnats strumming softly / It's over, It's over."
As Bachmann, Bonanno, and Bohince pass through respective stages of grief—that Dickinsonian chill and stupor, followed by emotional release—we see a poetry that is as varied as the loved ones mourned in their respective collections. Suggested by its title, Bachmann's Temper is simultaneously a state of feeling, an attunement, an act of restraint; to temper is to mitigate, to soften by reheating at a cooler temperature. Slamming Open the Door reveals a room in which evidence of devastation is nailed to every wall. Bohince sees the incident of her book's title as a means of understanding not only the loss of a parent, but also the traumatic history of place. For all their differences, each poet expresses degrees of love and loss, while touching on—however reluctantly—matters of gender, brutality, punishment, and crime. Because the beloved has been murdered, his or her body inadvertently becomes politicized. As is often the case with elegy, in Temper, Slamming Open the Door, and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods we witness a poetic hybrid.
Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is obviously public, its personal utterances really a communal call for mourning. With urgency and candor, Bachmann, Bonanno, and Bohince remind us that elegies honoring private citizens can be equally political and powerful. A final and critical point about the featured books—they're debuts. As we know, the slaying of America's sixteenth President changed Whitman's tune. "When Lilacs" finds the optimistic poet in a state of psychological distress. Unlike Whitman, the authors reviewed here may find themselves turning from grief to exuberance in the future, which invites a question: how will their future poetic scores change once freed from the bonds of mourning?
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