I was preparing to cartop my rowing shell after an outing on Oregon’s Lost Lake when Grace Bonner appeared on the shoreline trail in the company of the poet Amanda Turner, with whom I once read the slush pile at Poetry Northwest. This chance introduction opened my ears to listen for Bonner’s poetry, and I picked up snatches of it in the The Hopkins Review and The Brooklyn Quarterly, but I had to wait two years for her first book of poetry, Round Lake. What I learned of Bonner in our conversation opened the door to her book for me: one interested in lakes and the company of other poets and artists.
Bonner’s poems dwell near lakes like “Round Lake, NY,” a poem in three parts, each part of which heads up the book’s three sections; Fingerbone Lake from the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which is suggested by lines like “this snow is dancing / on a lake / where everybody / drowns,” ; and a round lake from a Sumerian origin myth, of which Bonner says in the notes, “…the universe was engendered from, and surrounded by, water. From within, the world appeared to be a round lake.” These poems walk in the company of Thomas Hardy, John Donne, Brenda Shaughnessy, H.D., and other poets, all of whom are cited in the notes. It’s hard not to infer the influence of many more poets, knowing of Bonner’s past work as the Director of the 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center.
If not along the shore of a lake, one might meet Bonner in a gallery. These poems offer ekphrastic discoveries of works from many genres of art. “Anemone” speaks to a J.M.W. Turner painting, “Peace–Burial at Sea.” In “Landscape with Colossal Kouros,” “…another night in the arms of a man/ who cannot love me” is juxtaposed with a nude male sculpture. A Velvet Underground song, “Heroin,” informs “Poem for Jesus’s Son,” and an experimental short film, “Mothlight,” with its flickering ashen imagery, is invoked as the title of a poem that describes taking “What’s left of you” to New Mexico to inhabit a “new room” with “walls of stars.” The manner in which Bonner interprets art, always finding the personal in it, suggests ekphrasis as a sort of formal constraint that blows open personal insight.
Round Lake is dedicated to Bonner’s mother and sister, whose deaths drive many of the poems. If “Mothlight” waits to be read behind a door labeled “Grief and Acceptance,” then Bonner’s book presents a ring of keys to other doors leading off the same hallway, doors which might be labeled “Spirituality,” “Journeys,” and “Comic Relief.”
In Hamlet, we laugh when the prince asks, “Whose grave’s this, sirrah?” and the gravedigger puns, “Mine, Sir,” even as we anticipate Hamlet’s horror when he learns it is Ophelia’s. Bonner similarly delights us with her verbal hijinks, as in “Faerie Child”:
I have glimpsed
a fabulous sea quince
or three sea quinces
But, all laughter gone, she throws us in the dirt in a later poem, “Mother Last June,” where “I have circled our yard, calling her name. / And the stream paces like a lion caged near fire.”
The humor does its work to heighten the horror that follows. In “Mother Last June,” the engagement with loss in an emotional landscape invites one of many comparisons to Marilynne Robinson. In Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping, the narrator’s mother suicides and a sister is lost forever, all beside, and in, a massive lake that floods archetypally and threatens to give up its dead. Bonner’s book might be read as a companion piece to Housekeeping, so thoroughly do the two seem thematically linked. Simone Weil loans the title “Gravity and Grace” to a poem, and joins Robinson among the wise, strong women that Bonner invokes and seeks.
The arc of the collection bends toward an uneasy search. The book opens with an “Incantation” that anticipates the book’s lost sister, a sojourn in Greece, which serves as a setting for many of the poems, the death of the mother, and finally a new “mother” emerging—one that guides and protects, “protect me mother heart a serpent must be charmed… .” In the final poem of the book, Bonner appeals to the ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis, “Pagan / mother, take / my hand–tiny, / unsculpted, living,” elevating the search for a spiritual mother that includes Robinson and Weil; for this is also a book that wrestles with spirituality in unorthodox terms—“Now pack up your religions”—much as Robinson and Weil do.
If the poems in this book are charms against “a serpent in the heart,” like the one that takes the sister, then the book is a bedside grimoire for use in an uncaring world. God appears present but distant, as in “Playing Bach” where “God is more meticulous/ than kind” or in “Elegy” where “We laughed/ at God’s unsubtle billboard: You think/ it’s hot here?” In the Weil-inspired “Gravity and Grace,” Bonner writes, “I have heard her mistake a car service operator / for a God who cares. / Would someone please come, / would someone please come to deliver me—“ this in a poem in which God is a typo. In another, God is a “Marksman, Flourishing.” Deliverance in these poems is both a joke and a threat.
The poems transcend when the musically and verbally playful combine with serious subject matter, as in “Unnerving Groundcover”: “Chrysanthemum poison must be extracted / before the petals are steeped for tea. / And so our love is like surgery… .” And later, “Lamb’s Ears may bandage wounds. / Don’t come back, motherwort.” But sometimes Bonner appears overly seduced by twenty-dollar adjectives that serve the aural needs of the poem, but distract from an otherwise plain-spoken purpose. One example is the title “Spectacular Crepuscular,” with a heavy question lurking below, “What besides heat / makes you eternal?” We see this tendency again in “Song Traversing a Tenebrous World,” which asks, “People mourn / as though a villager has died. / Was it you sister?” The departed sister keeps appearing in the poem even “in seine nets.” I trust the world the poem constructs to be tenebrous without being told as much in the title. The line between comic and tragic is thin, and Bonner walks it soberly most of the time. Ultimately, she manages to evoke the “Thin Place” of a poem, which Bonner defines in the notes as “… a Pagan Celtic term, later adopted by Christians, for a mesmerizing place or state of being in which one feels close to the divine.” The book examines the wish to be close to the divine, invites it even, but ultimately can’t commit.
If the book is non-committal about lovers, family, children, God,—even, at first—life, then it wrestles with the biggest questions. It looks for answers in art, in incantation and in song, which is the best province of poetry. In Bonner, it’s a Greek province. Reading Round Lake, I was drawn into a vortex of connections and new vocabulary, old Greek and modern Greece, more than happy to look up “chthonic” or to link on the QR code on the book’s back cover and find a video of a rainy back porch with the words of “Sunken Table” appearing, then a fleeting shot of the poet smoking a cigarette. The book is a node. Call it funny, call it serious, call Siri, and call your sister.
Author photograph © Orianna Riley.