Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods
Saturday, April 18th, 2009
It’s refreshing to read a book of poems where the author cares about getting the reader from the beginning to the end, from the first page to the last. It’s surprising, reading this rare kind of book, to come across poem after poem that works in almost the same way as the one before, and yet is completely individuated, shapely and moving. And if the subjects run from nature, family, and love to lust, murder, grief and survival? That combination of immediate availability and unknowable depth can be found in a few recent books, one of the best of which is Paula Bohince’s overwhelming debut collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods.
The publisher bills the book as a sort of mystery, but there’s very little Bohince doesn’t say all at once. When the speaker is born her father’s in jail; when he gets out he remakes himself as a farmer in a valley, probably in Pennsylvania, giving his daughter a lonely, possibly motherless childhood among animals and wilderness. The father is nearly wordless, and the speaker mixes prayer to an absent god with conversation with her present father. There are moments of tenderness and beauty, but these are overshadowed by a persistent feeling of sorrow and abandonment, not to mention a folk belief that the father’s trespasses will be punished. And at some point, the father is robbed, shot and killed by his farmhands. They go unpunished. Later, the daughter returns to the farm to make a life, and learns that her neighbor is surviving a similarly harrowing story. It may sound simple, but it can’t have been for the ones living through it. Bohince’s verse carries the incredible weight of its events without the relief of before and after.
Don’t be mean to me.
Don’t make me look at the swamp
of his body, come spring,
when the job of my childhood was staring:
jaw unhinged, mind agog
at the whitewash of trillium—
whorl of three leaves with a solitary rising flower,
world sickening on the vine,
buds, hoary with sugar, swaying
like appraising hands.
Certain features recur – there are usually animals, plants, water, the outdoors or barns, the daughter, the father – and are never generic, are always palpable presences with idiosyncratic histories. Loved individuals. It takes a while to get to know why Bohince is talking about, say, sheep and deer, but it comes clear in the intense association she makes between the animals and the speaker’s father, even as she acknowledges that it’s possible she’s only imagining it:
And though I can still see pretty hooves lifting,
feel the purchase of the nozzle
firing fresh water,
I must have dreamt it.
Weren’t we always cold?
We wore no wool, had no money from schemes
of shearing and selling the stuff.
And if there were deer, wouldn’t they have leapt over?
(from “Landscape with Sheep and Deer”)
The tension between real and false memory is already well-charted, and can’t account on its own for the magnetic quality of these poems, though Bohince does handle that tension well. I’m more attracted to the strange word-to-word physicality of her lines, in which everything is smudged, humming or glimmering, about to be crushed or broken, split in two by lightning, shot, drowned, shrunken, slackened, spinning, lifting, mucked or just standing, bruised, “alarmingly still.” The speaker’s relation to all this incipient physical excitement is often bashful, but the mournful undercurrent of erotic longing does come up to the surface occasionally, as in a poem recalling feelings of lust for the young man who may have committed the murder:
I see John in his flowered shirt
chiseling shingles off the roof over my bedroom,
him rainbowed there, in oil and tar,
the rainbow, the memory
dwindling to one sexual minute caught in the sunlit
hollow of his throat, pool deepening
to soil’s color by August,
my earth, I imagine, as he turns the fields in autumn,
my sunlight memorizing his body
(from “When I Think of Love”)
Rainbowed is fantastic, as are the oil and tar, the sunlit hollow, the anaphora joining earth and sunlight. The blankness of “one sexual minute” is forgivable, and there are moments of telegraphy needing forgiveness throughout. They’re easy to forgive, though, in light of how much the reader has to hold together – the extreme sensations, the way some sentences run several stanzas and others run just to the end of the line, the piecemeal story. It does all hold together. Bohince’s poems avoid foregoing their conclusions, neither understandable in an instant nor hermetic.
The poems that hold together best in Bayonet Woods, curiously, are the ones that appear at first to have nothing to do with the narrative at all. “Where Radio Fails” considers animals as a form of entertainment or prophecy, the speaker looking and listening at nature with all the absorption of a spectator at a sporting event:
Weird cables of the sycamore rattle.
And if the interference of finches on those self-same branches
sends no comfort, no wonder:
those mutants, half-born and flustered,
have no plan for winter.
Meanwhile, the snow geese are flying.
Legs folded, black straps tucked under, they are
winners, bodies clearly superior.
Finches as mutants – nice. Elsewhere, she describes the miracle of the loaves and fishes as if it took place in a cannery, “ordinary, robotic.” Bohince is aware of the distant quality – one poem says it would be better to “woo outrage the way / I woo sorrow” and no doubt it would, except for these poems, which support and shade each other the way poems in poetry books ought to, and used to fairly often when James Wright and James Schuyler were writing them. That real achievement of the art, of imbuing lyrics with a life beyond the end of the poem, has been in danger of disappearing for some time, and still is. We have been living through a time of middle muddle, of too many poets dreaming they’re writing one big poem, not noticing when nothing’s getting through, or worse, accepting that condition, out of arrogance or ignorance or indifference. It’s gotten to the point again where magazines usually show a better side of the poet than the eventual book does. Not Bohince. Her poems belong together. They offer some consolation to the patient and impatient reader alike. Her encore will be eagerly awaited, but for now this book is plenty.