Wednesday, March 30, 2011



Airs & Voices by Paula Bonnel
(BkMk Press/University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City, MO, 2008)

It’s All in the Air — On Airs & Voices by Paula Bonnell

Winner of the John Ciardi Prize of Poetry that was selected by Mark Jarman, Paula Bonnell’s book of poems, Airs & Voices (BkMk Press, 2008) is a delightful and fresh read. In three sections, her work explores tiny moments of daily life, while intertwining and revisiting memories of people and places she felt close to. Animals, morning, food, dance and music — these are also presented in enchanting and playful snapshots as she subtly handles the emotional difficulties behind a meaningful existence.

Music, among others, is what you can easily hear in Bonnell’s writing — as a theme and as a structural element that brings poetry alive. Take a look, for instance, “Air” (p. 30) :
The music is not over until the chords resolve —
the notes appear and recognize each other
by a nod, a bow, a curtsey — or a wink
and then they change their places by a set
of steps, a link of arms, an intricate
enactment of a figure, and double back
to take it from the top.
                                    Why would they
stop unless their pauses made a shimmer
in the sheen of oolor that they give the air?
their nameless naming, lightness bright illumination
makes melody and respite and release
until and after all their chords dissolve.

Here, music is literally conjured as a series of visuals that owns an authentic sensuality. You see the music, feel its movement. Bonnell renders such “music” accessible to her readers with warmth, humor, wits and more importantly, a confident yet unintrusive phrasing. In “The Clarinet” (p. 49), renewing the short supply of calligrams we see in contemporary American poetry today. The poem’s architecture literally takes on the shape of a clarinet, while in “Domestic Opera,” (p. 33), Bonnell is unafraid to take on music as form in itself, experimenting boldly (and somehow “funkily,” for lack of a word) with a untraditional synthesis of a musical form within a jazz-like poetic structure:
In order of vocal appearance, blue watering can (BWC), cat, various bonsai. The householder is a mute part, to be played by a dancer.

BWC: Blue, I am blue

Cat: I, I am

Bonsai: O sun
            O water
            O darkness
            O sun (& so on, in madrigal)

“Voices” (pp. 65-66), the title poem of the last section seems to be an important focal point in this book, offering a specific contextual narrative in the author’s poetic imagination. In twelve stanzas, the poet presents a collage of voices in twelve different situations and times that responds to the September 11 tragedy. Each reality, other than the mere act of showing and telling, carries an emotional complex and overtones more haunting beyond the “happening” of this attack:
The editor of the Arab American
I hate assumptions and I hate predictions,
            but assume he’s an Arab.
            I have one request.
            Let me kill him. I would be
            satisfied if I kill him personally

The teacher recalling the day the class talked about
their parents’ work and the child who said,
My father flies planes into buildings


Keillor on the radio It is not
pleasing to God to rain down destruction
from the skies

from Mohamed Atta’s luggage
Oh, God, open all doors for me.


And today, in a letter to the editor
a Muslim reader writes
Our holybook, the Qu’ran, teaches
If anyone kills an innocent person,
it is as if he has killed all of humanity,
and if anyone saves a life,
it is as if he has saved all of humanity.
The Arabic word Islam comes
from the word
which means peace.

In general, I do not find Air & Voices an obscure or difficult read, and am happy to be acquainted with Paula Bonnell's luminous writings. When I finish the book, the very first poem, “Dawn Chorus” (p. 15, yet another metaphorical figurative of music) still resonates in my mind, as if reminding me to always look forward to something bright in a world we too often see as imperfect:
Before the sun
lifts its fireball over the harbor,
while it is still blazing beneath the horizon, it pushes
dim white light into the upper sky. Then
the animals begin to celebrate.
The cats sharpen their claws, the birds stir
and talk it up. To the starlings’ gibberish
and the crows’ whole notes, the rooster
adds his boogie-woogie cadenza.
On this city block, a dog
cries Hark! to resentful neighbors
and I awaken, put a pillow over my eyes
and go back to sleep.


Fiona Sze-Lorrain's recent work includes Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2010) as well as prose translations and an introduction of Hai Zi (Tupelo Press, 2012, forthcoming). She is one of the editors at Cerise Press (, and co-director of Vif éditions.

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