“The Children” by Paula Bohince

Reviewed By

The plosive thrills and quietly mournful tenor of the finely-wrought poems Paula Bohince’s The Children (her second full-length collection) reward enormously upon first encounter, and only more so upon subsequent reads. This collection reminds the reader that lyric’s static and sequential structures in fact require the reader to re-read, if she wishes becomes more deeply acquainted with a lyric subject (the ostensible aim of lyric poetry). The complex and knotted structures of lyric poetry can thus be a means by which the poem resists surface readings as well as signification—at least initially—requiring the reader, if they wish to know and understand the subject(s) of a lyric poem in an image- and place- driven collection such as The Children, to re-read.

Collapsing the binary between the technics of “mere sound” and “signifying discourse” (“Slashes of nothing weaved/ into the actual”), this collection reminds us that while phonemes may be purely differential entities that have no signification, they are also that which make signification (“Pulses/ of blue hidden under that shade”) possible.

Anaphora or “list poems,” after all, are forms of serial modification; it can also be useful, when considering the dialectic of repetition and variance in these poems, and those from her first collection, to think of the poem’s structure as analogous to a ballet or a music composition.

As John Hollander notes, in his discussion of the structure of poetic refrain from Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language, there exists a “bipolar spectrum” in lyric poetry, between “the purely musical” (a univocal sign of music returning to embrace narrative or analytic information in the strophes) and an “optimum density of reference,” in which each strophic return accrues new meaning—not merely because of its relation to the preceding strophe, but as a function of the history of its previous occurrences in the poem.

While some poems (e.g. “Green River Fugue”) from The Children speak to the murder mystery that set the stage for her 2008 collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, The Children is doing different work entirely, engaging with myths of origin and evolution. This is a bold move for a second collection, considering that poems about actual origins (in Bohince’s case, the lush, cattail-ridden marshes of Westmoreland County in rural Southwest Pennsylvania, where she spent her childhood) or mythic origins are typically undertaken in a debut collection (though Joseph Campana’s Natural Selection was also published subsequent to his debut collection Book of Faces, so perhaps this myth needs revisiting, too).

While many readers of The Children might reflect on what has become of the tradition of pastoral poetry—which this collection, primarily through Bohince’s skilled rendering of themes of decay and rebirth, beauty and loss, mechanical versus “natural” processes, and the anatomy (in both exterior and interior landscapes) of ruin—the elegiac work being done in The Children is also for the tradition of courtly poetry, the epithalamion, and the current sorry state (“As the desk and its discourse make/ poor substitute our mutual bed”) of the erotic poem.

Divided into three sections, the collection’s opening poem, “Pussy Willow,” announces this staging of the drama of birth (hearkening Stevens’ lines, from “A Discovery of Thought”: “the effort to be born/ Surviving being born, the event of life”), from the outset: “Faint as flame-in-wind,/ I was born, cupped inside a fist/ and carried everywhere . . . ”

From here, Bohince traces, with a masterful command of syntax and line, the warp and woof of evolution—of the individual speaker, yes, as well as the world(s) she inhabits, and the poem—and the triumph (and tragedy, because all terminal forms are tragic) of the arrival of “being” after the cocoon of “becoming” is sloughed off. “The adults look babyish all their lives,” says the speaker of “Hare in Snow”: and, from “Man on Horseback”: “Sprung overnight:/ pink gills, silky heads.// Violently made, galloping/ toward being. Then calm as stalled/ hooves.”

These twin processes of “Larvae harden[ing] into adults” (from “Spring”) and the subsequent shock of having (and being) a body, “Cut down/ and carried into the kitchen, like a trophy,” (from “Hornets’ Nest”) takes place in both the representational and actual worlds rhythmically.

The tension Bohince evokes between artificial rhythms (the “to and fro,/ to and fro” of a mechanical horse) and organic rhythms (“wanting the bees,/ unlike batteries, never to stop,/ golden mobile over the flickering”) grounds this collection’s most salient theme: the pyrrhic victory of nature (“pulse of the monarch”; “lunar drag of female bodies”) over not only modernity and civilization, but its theoretical tractates and constitutive written documents, both literary and extra-literary (and the ephemeral lives they document and archive).

Thus it is that nature (and the irreducibly complex lyric poem?) doth make fools of us all.

From “Silverfish”:

The silverfish found me, chewed through
my hurt, making a lacy map
of beautiful words,
which I can recollect beside the box of dishes,
the botanical prints. Though the bodies
of the insects are gone,
they lived a while on my sadness, my petty
text. Extracting some nutrient
and leaving the rest.

Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, the Believer, and The New Republic, among other places. A recipient of fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox Bow, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, she lives in Chicago, where she is a doctoral student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More from this author →