Friday, January 22, 2010

What I'm Reading: Temper

50 º and the gloom persists

I first heard about Beth Bachmann's book Temper, which won the 2008 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, about six months ago. I tried to get it through ILL at the school library b/c my book buying was getting out of control. It turned out that if a book is too new, we can't ILL it. So, I requested the library purchase it. I was able to bring home the library copy a few weeks ago and have since read the book several times. (And, just now, I received my overdue notice...yikes!)

Temper has received a lot of talk on the blogs, so many of you may already know that its central subject is the murder of the speaker's sister and the shadow of suspicion cast on the father. The poems detail in stark images how one family experiences a trauma of this scope and attempts to hold itself together, sometimes not all that successfully.

The book itself is beautiful, with a stunning cover that fits the poems perfectly. While it is easy to read these poems quickly, devouring the storyline and the images, it became important for me to re-read with more deliberateness, to soak in the way language has been made to wrestle with a difficult subject matter.

The title poem, which opens the collection, epitomizes Bachmann's strengths: her concision and her use of sound & images. Here it is in its entirety.

Some things are damned to erupt like wildfire,

windblown, like wild lupine, like wings, one after

another leaving the stone-hole in the greenhouse glass.

Peak bloom, a brood of blue before firebrand.

And though it is late in the season, the bathers, also,

obey. One after another, they breathe in and butterfly

the surface:
mimic white, harvester, spot-celled sister,

fed by the spring, the water beneath is cold.

There is a sparseness to the poems that haunts me as I read. If I have a complaint about the book, it is only that I wish for more details about the sisters, the father, and the mother. So much is held back. As a writer, I can see the need for this; after all, the book is about not knowing, about sudden absences, about moments that refuse to be resolved. As a reader, I want to know the unknowable.

Woven throughout the poems is religious imagery, although it does not overpower the poems. It seems a natural extension of the speaker's attempt to reconcile her sister's suffering and her family's lack of knowledge about her death. For example, in "Erato," the speaker is describing the position of her sister's body after the struggle and the murder. She states, " might take one look at the shape in the snow and say, // swan or angel, / something to do with the divine, the light // always bending back." The image of wings provides a common thread throughout many of the poems, that hope for a swift flight from this world to the next, whatever it may be, and also the darker feeling of the swooping, threatening predator.

There are also many "what if" questions asked in these poem. The writer's instinct is to revise the story, to find a way to make answers fit, and Bachmann does this in several poems. For instance, here are the last three stanzas of "Deception":

Should it have happened then
(her body

written over in blossom),
the ripened bees

would have been faced with pollen--
honeyed, unhinged.

What I'm left with after reading this incredibly engaging collection is a set of questions. What happens next? How do people rebuild their lives after the tragedy, after the mourning lessens? How do we go on? I'm hoping Bachmann might address these questions in future poems, if she continues to write about this subject.

Support poetry and poets today! Borrow or Buy this Book!
Beth Bachmann
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009


Charlotte Pence said...

Lovely review of her book! And that first poem "Temper" that you focused on is one of my favorites from the collection.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, C. Looking forward to your next poem review.