Thursday, July 09, 2009

What drives a poem? One of the acknowledged difficulties for the position of laureate, as traditionally conceived, is the implicit requirement to pen poems on demand, situations for which the poet presumably may feel little real passion. Andrew Motion produced just eight official poems during his ten years as Britain’s laureate. These included poems on the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday, on her passing, on Prince Charles’ marriage to Camilla Parker Bowes, on the Queen’s golden jubilee as well as for her diamond wedding anniversary. These acts of literary obsequiousness did little to enhance Motion’s motley literary reputation even if they did result in a knighthood for the author, who to some degree had auditioned for the job by penning a cringe-worthy elegy for Princess Diana before he was formally appointed to the position.

In her less than two-full months as Motion’s successor, Carol Ann Duffy has already shown a very different sense of what the post demands, writing one poem about the scandal of parliament members using public moneys to pay for personal expenses, from vacations to home improvements, and a second poem more recently celebrating Oxfam, the international aid organization created by the Quakers. While such works may not get her sacked – as was John Dryden – they do reveal a very different perspective as to what a public poet might be.

At the very other end of the spectrum are poets who are driven to writing works by the events in their lives. These poems are compelled, virtually involuntary on the part of their authors. The compulsion here tends to be internal, even if the events that trigger them – often the loss of a loved one – are thoroughly externalized. Volumes such as Donald Hall’s Without, about the death of his wife Jane Kenyon, or Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, about the loss of her son, have been among the most celebrated books in their authors’ respective careers.

Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door falls into this latter category. Like Bang’s Elegy, it is an account of any parent’s worst nightmare, the death of a child.Six years ago this week, Leidy (pronounced Lady) Bonanno was strangled in her apartment by a coworker & one-time lover. The 41 poems of this slender volume recount the events from the moments leading up to the discovery of her body through (and maybe just a little beyond) the conviction of her killer.

Each poem is a narrative vignette, capturing the elements of the tale in the sparest free verse imaginable. Many of the sections are thoroughly predictable, but no less searing for that fact. Much of what makes this book powerful, rather than sentimental, is precisely its stripped-down detail. A poem taken almost entirely from the newspaper report in the Reading Eagle reads as if it has been written by George Oppen channeling Charles Reznikoff:

Leidy S. Bonanno, 21,
was found dead
late Tuesday
inside her first floor apartment . . . .
The killer used
Bonanno’s telephone cord
to choke her
then left her body on her bed.
[He] covered her face
with a bed pillow,
and locked the apartment
doors [before he] left,
police said.

Elision and brackets in the original. Even the poems that deal entirely with emotional responses (and responses to responses) have this same quality:

What Not to Say

Don’t say that you choked
on a chicken bone once,
and then make the sound,
kuh, kuh, and say
you bet that’s how she felt.

Don’t ask in horror
why we cremated her.

And when I stand
in the receiving line
like Jackie Kennedy
without her pillbox hat,
if Jackie were fat
and had taken
enough Klonopin
to still an ox,

and you whisper,
I think of you
every day,

don’t finish with
because I’ve been going
to Weight Watchers
on Tuesday and wonder
if you want to go too.

The allusion to Jacqueline Kennedy, which is really part of the set-up for the image of the author, is about as much embellishment as you’re going to find in these pages, that and some anaphor (another effect out of George Oppen’s toolkit). The humor here is both part of the horror that is at the heart of this book & a leavening of it, the inappropriateness of friends who imagine they’re reaching out to comfort or help.

The spare nature of these texts is really what makes this book possible. It never gets more figurative than in the use of the figure of the ladybug we see portrayed on the book’s cover, the victim’s nickname growing up. Bonanno’s ambivalence throughout toward “healing” comes across as profoundly honest. And so far as I can tell, Bonanno changed only one detail in the entire telling: two consonants in the killer’s last name.¹ Much of the book’s power comes from such understatement. You can read the entire volume in an hour – in fact, it is virtually impossible to put down until you do so.

Bonanno is a first-time author – Slamming received the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award, Alice James Book’s contest for first books – but not a naïf when it comes to poetry. She teaches English in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia suburb where Benjamin Netanyahu, Ezra Pound & Reggie Jackson all grew up. Her husband, David, is a poet & co-editor of the American Book Review. It’s not at all clear whether or not she will go on to write other books on other themes. But even if this is the only volume she should ever publish, it is a substantial accomplishment. Still, I’d wager that she would give anything – her life – never to have written it at all.


¹ No doubt to avoid any lawsuits from an incarcerated felon with nothing better to do with his time for the next several decades. And perhaps out of sympathy toward the killer’s mother & children, towards whom she expresses complex modes of empathy for the ways in which their pain is wedded to her own.