August 2017

To pray, I no longer rely
on the language of the memorized,

on the round of mysteries made
by pressing thumb and index finger

around a carved wooden bead,
then dropping to the next. Now

and at the hour, to pray is
the whole shattered vessel

of the body’s need; and the spirit
propelling it forward on its knees.

 

In response to Via Negativa: Scientist.

It started as a series of poems here on Via Negativa, was turned into a book by my artist-friend Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing, and now has been turned into an album by another brilliant artist-friend, Marc Neys. If you’ve been wondering when the summer heat will abate, the answer is: the moment you put on headphones and start listening to Ice Mountain. And if you’ve already purchased a copy of the book, send Marc a photo of yourself holding the book and he’ll email you the download for free.

I’ve posted a mini review on my author site, but I should perhaps emphasize that one of the best things about this, as a poetry + music collection, is that you don’t just have to listen to my voice. Marc also worked in readings by both my parents, Bruce and Marcia Bonta, as well as the young daughter of some friends, and she kind of stole the show in my opinion. So there’s this great multi-vocal, multi-generational dimension.

Speaking of reviews, by the way, the online art and poetry journal Escape Into Life published a wonderful review of Ice Mountain (the book) a few weeks back. Reviewer Kathleen Kirk concluded:

As we laze or doze during the dog days of summer, it’s good to recall that “huge natural refrigerator” [the Allegheny Front] and let it remind us to do what we can do to counter global warming, lest all our windmills become flowers for the dead.

Our science teachers told us to find and bring
old rolls of undeveloped film— then showed us

how to pull the strips out. They made a somehow
satisfyingly crisp sound as they cleared

the revolving sprockets. Each of us snipped
two squares from the reel, which we separated

with scissors and taped to cardboard windows
we then could hold before our eyes to shield them.

We’d go into the playground to witness how
the moon slid into position directly between

the earth and the sun. We were warned: the sky
would go dark even in broad daylight. The dogs

would howl, the roosters in their cages crow
in confusion. We were not to look directly

at the sun, or its concentrated rays could damage
our eyes. Another teacher said, if we filled a pail

or basin with water and set it on the ground,
we could look into it as into a mirror to see

this heavenly passage that would not come again
for maybe fifty years, or a hundred. We learned

the names for those cone-shaped shadows and the one
that superimposes its dark body upon an aura edged

with light: how it’s darkest at the center
where the source of light is completely occluded,

how the area released in passage shades off into
an almost or nearly dark. How in the old days,

the people beat their drums and gongs in a frenzy,
believing the god of light had been eaten by a beast.

and monuments, especially those erected

by leaders with a somehow smaller than normal
sense of self worth, that they must compensate

for what they couldn’t sustain in their tenure
—the love of the people, undoctored praise

in history books, acknowledgment without
coercion of the great, magnanimous vision

that allegedly brought their nations forward,
out of the pitiful darkness of the past

before they came along? Before its destruction
two winters ago, Mao’s gold-brushed statue,

36 meters high, sat on the desolate bit of farm
country hardest hit by the great famines of the ’50s

and ’60s. And what of the thousands of stone
or marble likenesses of Stalin and Lenin

that used to dominate parks and squares all
over the former Soviet empire, periodically

toppled by angry citizens and revolutionaries?
Like the one pulled down in Budapest in ’56:

after the fall of Communism, over two hundred
thousand workers dismantled Lenin’s bronze

statue, leaving only his boots, in which
they planted their flag. His stone head

rolled upon the boulevard, where it was marked
with insults. Along a windy stretch of highway

in Tuba, Benguet, a 98 foot bust of the late
Ferdinand Marcos was built. The Ibaloi who were

displaced from their homes and land smeared
the blood of sacrificial animals on the dictator’s

stony visage. Who knows if these are connected?
but in 1989, rebels blew open his sculpted face.

In 2002, treasure hunters chipped away at what
was left, and birds flew in and out of the hollows

that once were cheeks. This weekend on the news,
people pulled down the Confederate Soldier’s

Monument in Durham then surrounded it, some
spitting and cursing as if it were alive—

and in a way it’s true: so lifelike, carved stones
entomb almost mystically whatever part of our

human nature we’ve relegated. Cult objects,
they bristle in the glow of headlights;

they glimmer darkly in the sun, holding flags
that should have been rent to pieces years ago.

(Lord’s day). After long lying discoursing with my wife, I up, and comes Mr. Holliard to see me, who concurs with me that my pain is nothing but cold in my legs breeding wind, and got only by my using to wear a gowne, and that I am not at all troubled with any ulcer, but my thickness of water comes from my overheat in my back. He gone, comes Mr. Herbert, Mr. Honiwood’s man, and dined with me, a very honest, plain, well-meaning man, I think him to be; and by his discourse and manner of life, the true embleme of an old ordinary serving-man.
After dinner up to my chamber and made an end of Dr. Power’s booke of the Microscope, very fine and to my content, and then my wife and I with great pleasure, but with great difficulty before we could come to find the manner of seeing any thing by my microscope. At last did with good content, though not so much as I expect when I come to understand it better. By and by comes W. Joyce, in his silke suit, and cloake lined with velvett: staid talking with me, and I very merry at it. He supped with me; but a cunning, crafty fellow he is, and dangerous to displease, for his tongue spares nobody.
After supper I up to read a little, and then to bed.

I see nothing on my own
no plain meaning

think of the power
of the microscope

to find a thing not as I expect
but dangerous as a body


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 14 August 1664.

Up, and before I went to the office comes my Taylor with a coate I have made to wear within doors, purposely to come no lower than my knees, for by my wearing a gowne within doors comes all my tenderness about my legs. There comes also Mr. Reeve, with a microscope and scotoscope. For the first I did give him 5l. 10s., a great price, but a most curious bauble it is, and he says, as good, nay, the best he knows in England, and he makes the best in the world. The other he gives me, and is of value; and a curious curiosity it is to look objects in a darke room with. Mightly pleased with this I to the office, where all the morning. There offered by Sir W. Pen his coach to go to Epsum and carry my wife, I stept out and bade my wife make her ready, but being not very well and other things advising me to the contrary, I did forbear going, and so Mr. Creed dining with me I got him to give my wife and me a play this afternoon, lending him money to do it, which is a fallacy that I have found now once, to avoyde my vowe with, but never to be more practised I swear, and to the new play, at the Duke’s house, of “Henry the Fifth;” a most noble play, writ by my Lord Orrery; wherein Betterton, Harris, and Ianthe’s parts are most incomparably wrote and done, and the whole play the most full of height and raptures of wit and sense, that ever I heard; having but one incongruity, or what did, not please me in it, that is, that King Harry promises to plead for Tudor to their Mistresse, Princesse Katherine of France, more than when it comes to it he seems to do; and Tudor refused by her with some kind of indignity, not with a difficulty and honour that it ought to have been done in to him.
Thence home and to my office, wrote by the post, and then to read a little in Dr. Power’s book of discovery by the Microscope to enable me a little how to use and what to expect from my glasse.
So to supper and to bed.

doors within doors
make the world dark

but this is a fallacy
I have found no void

but a new writ
full as a book of glass


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 13 August 1664.

“…how many possess a cry
and never a body” ~ D. Bonta

You can usually tell what kind
of person you’re dealing with from the way,
for instance, they treat the people cleaning up for

or waiting on them. This observation, from my youngest
daughter who started working summers as a hostess
in a Japanese restaurant— though she wound up

being made to fill bento boxes with salad
greens and cherry tomatoes, and the pitchers
with ice cold water; roll the silverware

in napkins, and often, help wipe down tables
with a wet cloth at the end of the day. Oh yeah,
I know what she means; I’ve seen and heard it myself—

The demeanor and voice changing to one of peremptory
command, the not even looking into the eyes of those
whose hands bring you soup, refill your water

or tea; take the bowl back to the kitchen
just because the angry customer didn’t listen
or realize the item marked with four out of five

bird chillies on the menu means really spicy.
And the racist insult scrawled on the guest check
instead of a gratuity: “Ching Chong, if you can’t

speak English, maybe you should go back
to your country.” And whoever tells you
it’s about borders or soil or territory

doesn’t know or has willfully chosen to forget
our common and shameful histories. One apartment
we used to rent in the Ghent neighborhood

had some kind of electrical outlet
right in the middle of the dining room floor.
I couldn’t figure out what it was, until someone

explained it was likely from the old days,
when servants or slaves lived on the lower floor,
and could be summoned by the master or mistress

of the house to bring more iced tea, more mint
julep and deviled eggs, or take away the dirty dishes,
simply by pressing a buzzer with their foot. This week,

I read that a husband and wife in Quezon City
have just been convicted to 40 years in jail
for having repeatedly punched their maid, slammed

her body against doors; even pressing a hot iron
against her face, which caused her to go blind.
In Hong Kong, there are maids who press their bodies

into the space between the stove and the refrigerator
at night: these are their sleeping quarters. In Colorado,
a couple are now in jail for having starved and abused

their own blind, autistic son for over a decade. So much
anguish and pain, but we must recognize it by name—
Look it straight in the eye and not away, not pretend.

What animals are these, and how are they related to us?
What are those cries they emit out in the streets,
in the square, their fists raised in terrible salute?

 

In response to Via Negativa: Casualty.

It’s surprising how often I’ll dream of poop— hallways
littered with it, or me looking in vain for a bathroom.

My mother used to say: a dream of teeth fallen out of your
mouth is a bad omen, but poop’s okay. Detained in the bathroom,

my father liked to take his time reading the paper or Sports
Illustrated
. From his stash, I might have seen in the bathroom

that picture of Bo Derek rising out of the water, her hair in tiny
braids; everyone’s fantasy goddess and fevered dream. In the bathroom,

he put aside his magazine for five minutes so I could rehearse my school
elocution piece. With the door open a crack, he listened in the bathroom,

correcting pronunciation. The piece dramatized Satan’s temptation of Christ:
the final “Begone!” perfectly timed with toilet flush in the bathroom.

Up, and all the morning busy at the office with Sir W. Warren about a great contract for New England masts, where I was very hard with him, even to the making him angry, but I thought it fit to do it as well as just for my owne [and] the King’s behalf. At noon to the ‘Change a little, and so to dinner and then out by coach, setting my wife and mayde down, going to Stevens the silversmith to change some old silver lace and to go buy new silke lace for a petticoat.
I to White Hall and did much business at a Tangier Committee; where, among other things, speaking about propriety of the houses there, and how we ought to let the Portugeses I have right done them, as many of them as continue, or did sell the houses while they were in possession, and something further in their favour, the Duke in an anger I never observed in him before, did cry, says he, “All the world rides us, and I think we shall never ride anybody.”
Thence home, and, though late, yet Pedro being there, he sang a song and parted. I did give him 5s., but find it burdensome and so will break up the meeting. At night is brought home our poor Fancy, which to my great grief continues lame still, so that I wish she had not been brought ever home again, for it troubles me to see her.

the war was hard to fit
into a silk coat

how many possess a cry
and never a body

and find it burdensome
to continue to see


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 12 August 1664.

wondering about the life we’ve forgotten—
how we could get up each day and walk
to work or take our children to school
even before dark had lifted, knowing
no fear other than from strays that slunk
in the alleys, occasionally baring their fangs.
And the blackbirds that roosted in the trees
and power lines did not yet look
like a congregation of undertakers,
waiting for our bodies to fall in order
to take them away. Some say that to look
at the past is to cultivate a purposeless
nostalgia. Some say it was foolish of us
to believe we could leave the side doors
unlocked, the lamp shining, for the one
with the late night shift; while we climbed
the stairs and went to bed. Outside, on the curb
near pools formed by rainwater, geese hunker down
amid the green fern. In a neighborhood near the beach,
we heard hundreds of them were carted away in trucks
to be euthanized, because they populated the roads
and vehicles could not pass. This is what I mean
when I ask about where we were before this
moment. Maybe only twice in the last decade
have I experienced falling short of what I owed
at the till, and having the cashier fish out a few
coins from the tip jar to make up the difference.