blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2
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Review | The Children, by Paula Bohince
                Sarabande Books, April 2012

spacer The Children

No one envies sophomore poets. We make our way from a first book, which often draws from the deepest well of a life, to the second, in which we have to ask: What now? Where to? How to be heard above the audacious din? This spring, Sarabande Books published Paula Bohince’s second collection, after bringing out Bohince’s acclaimed debut, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods (winner of the inaugural Aleda Shirley Prize) in 2008. Bohince has escaped the sophomore jinx: The Children solidifies Bohince’s reputation as an important emerging voice whose images and wordplay energize the modern pastoral.

An agile pairing of eye and ear provides the core strength of Bohince’s craft. She chooses no phrase casually. Her tight, surely measured lines reign in ornate and occasionally over-academic constructions (“let the epiphanic sentence / stand in for touch”). Her poems can take a tame premise—“April Blizzard” announces one title—and then snap the reader to attention with an opening description of “humiliated fields.” In “Mother’s Quail,” the set piece of a hen gathering chicks is enervated with the intrusions of human risk (“boozy and flushed / from briar”) and transformative wordplay:

They tell a tranquil–
lized fortune:
days of luckless
labor and sadnesses
too frail to utter.
Shoulder to shoulder,
they fail,
the quail of her
actual and the quail
of her oblivion.

If one presumes a recurring speaker (only a few poems suggest otherwise), the central journey of The Children follows a series of rural settings, home or borrowed, that trigger interrogation of a life midstep. Pastoral or bucolic work dates back to the Greek poet Hesiod, solidified in the Roman tradition by Virgil’s Eclogues. The classical mode involves the literal presence of a shepherd, whose relation to his fields channels a philosophical dialogue. Here, our speaker finds she has no one to shepherd but herself, and she confronts the devastations and pleasures of this fate. In “Everywhere I Went that Spring, I was Alone,” she recalls the miracle of an afternoon hailstorm and the “crying unabashedly / into dishtowels” that preceded it.

For contemporary poets, the signature of pastoral is often a lush and highly specific vocabulary of nature, and the mood is usually elegiac rather than idyllic. In this way Bohince’s voice is comparable to Traci Brimhall, whose Rookery is suffused with birds and foxes, and Minnesota poet Katrina Vandenberg, whose poems deftly reference horticulture as a social medium. But the human population is much sparser in Bohince’s work. Even the title poem, “The Children,” focuses not on “the teenage couple rapt inside the field / after the rave has died,” but rather their wake—fleetingly preserved by compressed corn stalks. There is always dirt under the fingernails of her language, even as in this smartly sexual description of “Man on Horseback” mushrooms:

Virile specimens. Cavalry
of the after-storm’s
absinthe grasses. Sprung overnight:
pink gills, silky heads.

While Bohince provides great stand-alone treatments of mushrooms, milkweed, and gypsy moths, she most frequently invokes the motif of bees and hornets. Their humming chorus, cyclical and nest-chambered and without traditional familial structure, offers an appropriate vehicle for the restlessness that marks The Children. In lyrics of unresolved aching, perhaps of lost love or loves, the poet must beware of seeming indulgent or static. Titles such as “Nostalgic” and “Pinot Noir” do not serve the more serious themes opened up beneath them. Though it seems odd to perk up at the mention of the Green River serial killer or Virginia Woolf’s suicide in the Ouse, these external references offer a necessary grit and contrast to the dominant psychic landscape, and cameos of what is man-made—a Ferris wheel, or the wonderful coin-operated creature in “Mechanical Horse with Girl and Bees”—come welcome. After all, some of the strongest poems by Emily Dickinson (one of the book’s explicitly mentioned foremothers, along with Amy Clampitt) punctuated the talk of feathers and buzz with a loaded gun and a racing train.

The shadow of Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods looms large over this collection. That book, which gradually disclosed the murder of the speaker’s father at the hands of farm helpers, reflecting the loss of Bohince’s own father, had the advantage of powerful harnessing narrative. She evokes that story again here, using the Christian allegory of “Gethsemane,” a poem with the heart-stopping lines, “I do not know what it means to die, / but I have seen blood flower a floor, and I have felt my father / sag, ashamed, in my arms.” Bohince had a stellar debut; the frank melding of violence and beauty in an impoverished climate brought to mind Judy Jordan’s Carolina Ghost Woods, as well as the searing, elegant anger of Jean Valentine’s most revealing work.

Yet in some ways, I prefer this book. In genesis, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods could not help but be episodic. It drew on grief that begged for closure, reflected even in the formal choice of acrostics. The poems of The Children are rangier, needier, at times indulgent. But they feel like forward movement, and the sensation of new exploration is the most critical component of a second collection. This is mirrored most poignantly in “Silverfish,” in which the speaker returns to an old diary to find that:

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.

Each of us shepherds our private flock, in dialogue with pain as a condition of humanity, trying to decide what drives us and what must be left behind. The Children is strange progeny, equal parts decay and dogwood. So be it. Wherever Bohince wants to go from here, I am intrigued to follow.  end

Paula Bohince is the author of two collections of poetry, The Children (2012) and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods (2008), both from Sarabande Books. Bohince is the 2012 Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place.

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