Poet's Sampler: Curtis Bonney
Curtis Bonney's poems are about the "real world" gone a little mad, vacationing families amid a landscape of earlobes and opals. It's a world in pieces, where a Cherokee skull is located in a water cooler at a rest stop in Melbourne, Australia. It's a mystery how it got there, how words got there, how the protagonist arrived on the scene and how we, the readers, arrived on cue. Obsessed with geography and unexplained phenomena, each poem is a mystery turning in on itself, "the longest distance between two points," to quote a poem by Paul Hoover.
Are we in the world of Donald Barthelme? Don Delillo? British cartoonist Glen Baxter? Or is it a more ancient world of maps that conclude the world is square, that danger lurks in every corner of the finite creation representing the known? Mood, mystery, and mischief create vernacular collisions. And at each point on the map of the contingent is the baffled traveler (writer) hoping to extract something of value: a uranium crucifix "hot enough to burn a hole in the firmament" in "Terespol," a "thousand dead worker bees" under rhododendrons in "Cornwall." The eye is eager for disaster but finally sad for the world in chaos—for officials who arrive with the wrong tools to disarm it—while those who try to make sense of things wind up in Antwerp admiring an anonymous corpse.
If making sense of the world has long ago ceased to make sense, then what better than spending some time with Curtis Bonney's baffled protagonists, reshuffling the old Mysteries, finding, time and again, perfection in a moment of "not wanting."
Scattered under the famed rhododendrons
of Trewithen Gardens lay a thousand dead
He ropes off the area and breaks out
an aluminum folding chair. For an hour he watches
That night, on a hunch, he returns with a flashlight, and, proving once again why he was made head gardener, manages to startle a gorging gray horde of sweet-toothed woodmice.
He's frustrated with her anyway, by her tendency to wall him off. Thus, his lack of surprise when he finds himself staring (again) at her shoulder blades, the pretty nape of her neck. Plus, she says. Her friends bob along like parrots. Fans wobble overhead. A jukebox addicted to Motown and a bartender with tattoos so old they resemble bruises. Plus, what's left to say when she's got him trumped with salty dogs and dangerous nails and ultra light 120's?
Outside again, and he's forgotten it's daylight. He wanders over to his Dodge cloaked in a cloud of gnats. He sees Ronnie sprawled across the dash, baking himself. A four-year-old black-and-orange iguana that has outlasted a few girlfriends now. He squints out at the marsh. This is the problem: when Memorial Day comes after a bachelor party in Tampa. Then you're too hungover to squabble. In the name of things long-term and ill-defined, you simply forfeit.
He climbs in and starts the engine. A pleasant rumble in his tailbone. He lifts Ronnie and drapes him across the steering wheel, hooking his little claws over the top. He watches Ronnie glance up, as if he's checking in the rearview mirror. He grins, then puts the truck in gear and starts in toward town. As the first line of cars approaches, he leans to the side, out of sight, and lets Ronnie do the driving.
With the train from Moscow comes a wrong aura. And from where he stands, buttoned in wool, sipping coffee beneath the eaves of the station at Terespol, he notes it. An off-kilter intimation. The way the smoke trundles down and away, bullied. That detached quality to the clouds—their gray remove. How blasts of air and steam and screeching metal compel his men to wince, to lean away like the high grass growing between ties on the far set of tracks. When they board, the passengers—all looking vaguely familiar—pay either too much or too little attention.
Then there's the memory that has cropped up for no apparent reason. (Earlier, while the train is still arcing toward us through the pastures of Belarus.) A face from his first year at the academy: Witold Something. Several times this morning he's recalled the moment when Witold announced that he couldn't take it any more. Plum color rising to mottle his neck and cheeks, hands shaking. Gap-toothed Witold, drummed out. Because someone has to be the goat.
Suited up in lead and waving the wands of Geiger counters, his men head aft. Within minutes he hears the anticipated shout several cars down. When he reaches her, a middle-aged woman stammering in Polish, he sees she has no idea she's carrying uranium. He cuffs her anyway. In the back of the van he dumps the contents of her handbag. There, wrapped in cloth, he finds a crucifix hot enough to burn a hole in the firmament.
He's Spanish. Maybe this is why he looks for a church wherever he travels. An identity gone precarious. Or the devils of history catcalling, especially on a rainy afternoon in Antwerp beneath the moldy spire of Notre Dame. Umbrella poised low and forward, he crosses the street to get away. (Yes, after taking a cab to get there.) Eyes dart. Catch that stutter. Like a confidence man in a well-tailored suit: I just came to pray.
Later, after a meeting with a sales rep, he wanders to a chapel near the hotel. The doors push open into an empty vault. Across the hardwood: turbulent blues, golds, clots of red. He's alone, except for an open coffin in front of the chancel. He heads down the nave toward grandstands of lit candles, shoes clacking. How comfortable the coffin looks with its satin pillows. The old man resting there, gone waxy. Dusted hair. Mottled knuckles. Our protagonist kneels, counts the beads, does the requisite liturgy. Then he takes a pew in the back and for twenty minutes he sits, not wanting.
Out there in the cotton fields off Route 31—past the final Magik Market with its oil-blackened lot bejewelled in shattered glass. Inside, and the air-conditioner frosts our eyes. We stand on a worn patch of checkered linoleum, buying cokes. Out there, the cashier says, motioning to the windows. Fire.
Indeed, it seems the girls have begun burning things again. The initial conflagration, seven years previous, stemmed from residual anger, or so the DSS workers said. Parental neglect and sibling interdependence and a ten-year-old's ferocious desire to spell. GODAM, still there, seared across the paneling in the living room. The weed patch that served as a lawn has, of course, grown back. And who knows what happened to Uncle Ray, much less his guitar.
A charred hulk of a truck recently found ticking in the sun down by the creek; a smoldering in the tops of several dead oaks; paint scorched off the water tower in the shape of a goat; inexplicable flames brushed across the night sky. But who can testify to the sisters huddling together as they once did, eyes rolled back, jaws grinding in unison? Who of us has dared venture close enough to feel the air convect in our ears?
Curtis Bonney's poems have appeared inCream City Review, 14 Hills, andThe Prose Poem: An International Journal. He teaches ESL at California State University, Los Angeles.
Maxine Chernoff's recent books includeWorld: Poems 1991–2001,andSome of Her Friends That Year. She teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University.
1 Originally published in The Prose Poem: An International Journal.
2 Originally published in 14 Hills: The SFSU Review.
Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review