Dispatches | December 01, 2010
Poems like Christmas windows
I recently had the privilege of introducing the poet Bruce Bond for a reading he gave here at the University of Missouri. I was excited to offer the introduction, as I’m quite a fan of his work. Bond, a former TMR contributor, has published six books of poetry, and I’m told four more are forthcoming in the near future.
Perhaps the thing I’m most attracted to in Bond’s work is his gift for the image. I was in a workshop last semester where we read through Coleridge’s major poems. Towards the end of the semester, someone asked whether similar elements of fantasy or magical realism ever occurred in contemporary poetry. We were all at a loss to think of many examples. (Of course there are journals like The Fairy Tale review that publish poems which could often be classified in this genre, but none of us could come up with any one poet whose work consistently took on the magical or fantastical as subject matter). However, it eventually occurred to me that we have something very close to magical realism in the well-wrought image or metaphor, which, in the world of its poem, transforms the ordinary into the fantastic. The poems that accomplish this, in fact, are among my favorites—the ones that imbue the mundane with mystery, making the commonplace both strange and wonderful for the reader.
This is just what happens in Bond’s poems: the tap “drips like tiny hooves,” breath is transformed to “a car radio entering a tunnel,” birds over a crematorium are “a flock of needles,/ closing a rip in the sky’s cloth.” There is real pleasure in reading these poems. Partly this pleasure is the delight of the surprise itself. Reading his poems reminds me of the winter I spent in Paris as a college student when, around Christmas time, I stood outside of the Printemps department store with a crowd of children (and childlike adults) while the paper coverings were peeled back from each of the store’s window displays, revealing a series of enchanted microcosms: a flock of dancing ostriches, a gift-laden sleigh, a winter feast.
But beyond the surprising turns in Bond’s language, I also value the thing that such imagery accomplishes. It refuses to let us take anything for granted. Opening our vision to a world beyond the one in which we see only surfaces, it asks us to feel afresh, to approach experience—whether that of wonder or loss, curiosity or disappointment—with increased sensitivity. In an interview, Bond said that “art redeems us, redeems the moment, in part because it transfigures suffering.” Such transformations of suffering are essential to what I most admire in Bond’s poems. In “Wake,” one of the poems he read while he was here, the poem’s speaker describes his father on the cusp of death, his body already mostly “shut/ down like small cities when the power goes,/ just the enormity of starlight to guide them.” Like the small cities, the father’s body is vulnerable, stripped of its familiar controls, defenseless against the “enormity” of death. Of course this enormity is also the enormity of the unknown, of the “mystery”—as we later read—of that which lies beyond death’s threshold. The speaker stands at the threshold of something large as well, facing “the other half of life/ the part without [his] father in it.”
As readers, we understand the depth of that loss; either we have already crossed into that other half of life ourselves, or else the poem reminds us that one day we will. Here loss is registered, movingly, in the small things, an example of how something as unwieldy as grief is often experienced most keenly through the minutia of the everyday: a smell, a familiar food, a certain figure of speech—or as the poem offers, the memory of bacon crackling “like paper at Christmas,” a father knocking at his son’s door to wake him.
The poem tells us that “The living too leave their ghosts behind.” In his father’s absence of speech now, the son hears the ghost of the father’s knocking and that former, familiar summons. Just as the he was once, unwillingly, made to rise and leave the comfort of sleep, the speaker recognizes that he must, at this new threshold, relinquish the comfort of a father’s presence. In a reversal, it is the son who accepts that “it’s time,” for the father to leave—we have the sense of a release, a letting go of the father, when he speaks those words that were once spoken to him: “it’s time to go, it’s time.”
Earlier I spoke of transformations that occur in Bond’s poems. I should also add that in a poem in which loss is so skillfully rendered, the reader herself is transformed, even as she is moved. Bond may have put it best in his artist’s statement for an NEA feature when, speaking about the kind of poetry he is attracted to he also, I believe, characterizes the kinds of poems he writes: “work which achieves its evocative shimmer, its sense of multiplicity, urgency, and dynamism, from a memorable music and a rich layering of correspondences…In such poems it seems that language is determining itself at times, that it holds the torch, deepening our investments, opening up our range of thought and feeling, our sense of who we are and what we may become.”
Claire McQuerry is the Contest Editor of The Missouri Review.
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