Another day, another book of poems about the death of a close family member. This time it’s a daughter, murdered by an acquaintance. It’s absolutely devastating to read, the second time as much as the first: impossible to read quickly, but equally impossible to put down after the first poem, I found.
Does the newspaper where you live publish memorial poems? Ours does, often three or four per issue, but it’s a very conservative town and newspaper, and I suspect this custom long ago faded out in more sophisticated parts of the country, where online equivalents such as Facebook memorial pages have probably taken their place. These newspaper memorial poems take the form of either couplets or quatrains, depending on the size of the ad, invariably feature end-rhyme, and confine themselves to the most general and sentimental of expressions. For example: “In our hearts your memory lingers, sweetly tender, fond and true./ There is not a day, dear brother, that we do not think of you.”
I read that and a couple others like it this morning at breakfast, right after finishing Slamming Open the Door, and my immediate reaction was to recoil in disgust: they had nothing in common with Bonanno’s book, I thought, aside from the obvious function of memorializing the dead. The murdered daughter’s black-and-white photo appears on its own page right before the table of contents, just as photos of the dead family members appear in two out of three of the memorial ads in the April 10 issue of The Daily Herald. But beyond that, the newspaper poems — doggerel, really — couldn’t present a starker contrast to Bonanno’s, I thought. They were not only anonymous but generic, while Bonanno turns her unsparing gaze on herself every few pages, describing her very human reactions of rage, desolation, remorse for her own less-than-saintly mothering, gratitude for small gestures, and so on.
In one poem, an ant rears up on its hind legs, and “I do not see it,” she says, immediately after noting “its rosary-bead parts/ startling and black.” Grief insists on blindness to the world the daughter can no longer see, even if the poet’s aesthetic instincts cannot be so easily shoved aside. In another poem, she imagines her heart yanked from her chest in the middle of drinking tea — and now we are very far indeed from the bland hearts where “memory lingers” in the newspaper couplet.
[I]t drops, pumping,
onto the table
and there it is,
there is the matter,
your whole heart,
that brilliant engine,
— but far from dying, after a moment of adjustment to the loss, “invariably,/ you reach down/ to straighten a spoon.”
Taking another look at the newspaper poems in Saturday’s paper now, I am less inclined to be as dismissive as I was this morning. Great poetry they are not, but at least they don’t wallow in false piety. All three emphasize the importance of memory, and in that sense — in their metaphysical simplicity, their disinclination to try and find larger meanings in the loss of a family member — they do resemble the poems in Slamming Open the Door. I suspect that the very decision to publicly confront the death of a loved one in the most artful language one can muster probably compels a basic level of honesty, wrestling with the mystery of how someone so utterly gone can still have such an undiminished presence in our lives.
All of which is not to downplay the fact of the murder here, which puts Bonanno’s poems in a class of their own. They exorcise, or strive to. They flirt with catharsis. At some point, those of us who have been spared this experience have probably all wondered how we would react to the murder of a child. Bonanno tells us “How to Find Out,” “What People Give You,” and “What Not to Say.” She shows us the initial newspaper account, the autopsy report (as she interprets it) and eventually the jury’s verdict. The sparely yet vividly drawn characters — detective, prosecutor, mother of the murderer, a neighbor, a sister, another mother of a murdered child in a support group — are utterly believable, and the author’s commitment to honesty and her willingness to share even some moments of humor make her perhaps the most appealing character in the book.
And then there are the ladybugs, thousands of them everywhere: a phemonenon I’m intimately familiar with to the point of boredom. Nothing new there, surely. Yet somehow Bonanno managed to make me see them as something uncanny, a symbol of that present absence, perhaps, though the surface explanation of their significance is much simpler: “ladybug” was the daughter’s nickname.
After the trial, a blizzard
of ladybugs on the courthouse steps,
more this week
than Berks County has seen in years.
At first we crunch them underfoot
until, horrified, we look down
and know what we do.
Alice James Books seem to specialize in searing poetry about things that matter: Cynthia Cruz’ Ruin, Lia Purpura’s King Baby, Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, Kazim Ali’s The Far Mosque, and now this volume, every bit their equal. Buy them.
(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)