Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Beth Bachmann, Temper

Through a recommendation by Montreal poet Stephanie Bolster, I was recently made aware of American poet Beth Bachmann’s first poetry collection, Temper (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), winner of the 2008 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry.


Some things are damned to erupt like wildfire,

windblown, like wild lupine, like wings, one after

another leaving the stone-hole in the greenhouse glass.

Peak bloom, a broad of blue before firebrand.

And though it is late in the season, the bathers, also,

obey. One after another, they breathe in and butterfly

the surface: mimic white, harvester, spot-celled sister,

fed by the spring, the water beneath is cold.

As the author [see her recent 12 or 20 questions here] is quoted in the press release, “My poems turn and return to heat and the absence of heat, color and the absence of color, motioning between states of restlessness and composure, mimicking the way grief circles back to the site of the trauma,” with, as the press release also tells us, the trauma of the murder of her teenaged sister, and their father, accused of the crime. Bachmann’s poems turn, but turn through a movement of grief, beauty, acknowledgement and questioning, naming the unnamable. How does she manage to walk that fine line between story, myth, fact and grief without falling? Bachmann writes such a heartbreaking ease in lines that manage both a fine-tuned lightness and a heavy dark, writing a deep elegy that refuses to submit, refuses to slip into defeat, even as it passes.


The conversation turns to paper
tapering at the edge

of the wall, the details of the interior.
You’ve put your hand

through my body and are caught
in the rack of vines

I’ve descended into.

You want to know what was left
for weeks in the weeds:

the trauma to the head,
the naked waist, my sister.

You ask whether the violence was domestic
and I tell you that an animal

nudged the bones, that afterwards,
someone put the dog to sleep.

I offer this as resolution. We turn again
to the space,

the crown molding, the framed faces.

In a clear, stark clarity of voice, how do you take the temperature of a collection like Temper, holding steady between the sky and ground? Rewriting and retuning elegy, the collection starts with the poem “Temper” and ends with “Elegy,” what this collection as a whole can’t help but be, refining, returning, reflecting; the point of it all.


No shepherds. No nymphs. Maybe just one:

the girl the fawn strips like a fisherman’s rose.

Death turns its mouth red. It can no longer lie

in the lilies. Not on my watch. The lake is filthy

with silver fish sticky with leeches. Lovesick,

I flick a feather into the water. No stones.

Only the one in my pocket, heavy as a tongue.

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