Mary Bonina's Living Proof
Mary Bonina's short collection of poetry, Living Proof, is well named. Her poems evoke the textures and rhythms of daily life. Not life in the abstract, but a specific life, a life being lived. Of course, it can be hazardous to assume the a poet's work is based on her actual life, but Bonina's poetry certainly feels autobiographical. Reading it feels like leafing through a family photo album or commonplace book. (She includes a "Found Poem," constructed from descriptions of artificial eyes found in a 1927 taxidermy catalogue.)
While few of the poems are immediately arresting, Bonina has a natural, relaxed voice that slowly and calmly leads the reader down interesting but overlooked paths. She forgoes elaborate metaphors or symbolism, hyperbole, or "the clever turn of phrase," in favor of direct observation and quiet meditations on the subtle connections between things and feelings. Bonina moves swiftly from image painting to philosophizing, as in "A World," a poem about her father:
And on days when humidity took over
and then a sudden storm came up,
he would go out and stand beneath
the overhang of the roof and listen, just listen,
to the world being defined in raindrops.
Then he knew the limits of our physical world,
not his own boundless mind, his way of being.
Blind and in a storm, the wind and thunder
gave our world a ceiling, invited him in.
Bonina often explores family relationships. Father, aunt, husband, and son all feature prominently. She is also interested by the passage of time and the memory of the past. These come together in one of the collection's most interesting poems, "Boy, 5," in which her son buys some small toy soldiers, which immediately come to life:
In the car he must have them in hand,
at least one of each color, both sides,
and generals and regiment represented.
They march the back seat upholster and
poke at each other the whole ride back from Concord.
This leads to questions about how the past survives into the present and about the complex relationship between a mother and a son.
The radio is on in the car for the ride home from school
and I am listening to the evening news, something about
The Middle East and "Washington would not comment."
My son is confused. Is George Washington still alive?
I disappoint him. "No he is not."
Bonina's poetry has a strong "sense of place" (the title of one of the poems), specifically Massachusetts and Vermont. She explores the changing of the seasons, the migrations of animals and people, and their interaction with each other: "I think the mockingbird I hear has / a cell phone ring in tone its repertoire." All of these threads, and many others, weave together into a subtle but accessible tapestry of images and ideas.
Living Proof, Mary Bonina, 2007, Cervena Barva Press, 48 pages, $7.00.