Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Blackout Starlight: New and Selected Poems, 1997-2015

By Bruce Bond

Reviewed By John Amen

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In 2016, Bruce Bond released a collection of sonnets titled Black Anthem. It’s not surprising that the architectural and syllogistic nature of this traditional form would appeal to a poet such as Bond, whose gifts for thematic cogency and balancing linearity with strategic leaps have been on display since his debut. Though much of his work is clearly free verse, Bond has consistently employed a sense of meter, a penchant for expansive cohesiveness, and an aesthetic sensibility that suggest a debt to such poets as Shakespeare and Donne more so than, say, Eliot, Pound, or Williams. Blackout Starlight: New and Selected Poems, 1997-2015 offers a compelling survey of Bond’s evolution as a stylist, a poet with philosophic range and an ability to evoke profound emotions in response to sublime and quotidian experiences.

In a poem titled “Divorce,” from the aforementioned debut (Radiography, 1997), Bond concludes:

And even though the storm dragged over us, the world

grew strangely intimate, as if the more
it pried open with its hands, the farther
we would go and deeper, to feel it tear
our lives apart, skin from sleep, light from thunder.

He employs a fertile anthropomorphism to depict the relentless imposition of “the world” or Reality—i.e., the pain of divorce. Each person in the dissolving coupledom attempts to withdraw, presumably “deeper” into him- or herself. Reality, however, is ineluctable and merciless. Bond ends the piece with a counterintuitive complexity that would thrill Donne: what does it mean, how does it feel to “tear . . . skin from sleep,” to “tear . . . light from thunder?” With these phrases, Bond yokes “heterogeneous ideas.” He fuses incongruities, forcing the reader to encounter the limits of and perhaps relinquish conditioned associations. In this way, the familiar segues into and precipitates the transcendent. The resulting tension cannot be cognitively resolved but can be internalized or experienced, emotionally and/or somatically.

Bond is particularly adept in his ability to establish accessibility within a poem, then segueing toward phrasing that upends the predictability of linear and associative language, in this way enrolling the reader and subsequently destabilizing the text (and reader). Consider how he opens “Thelonious Sphere Monk” (The Throats of Narcissus, 2001) (“Take any solo session from the Riverside / years, those long trapped breaths of dissonance”), moves through a confluence of materiality and music (“great sad boulders // of chords,” “soaring tenements / of work”), and arrives at a series of lines which aptly/alternately evoke and perplex:

there’s a lightness here, a compulsion
to surprise. Less an end to silence
than a yielding to its wants, to the bloom
of poverty and water inside it:

sound as the hard fruit of deprivation.

“The bloom / of poverty” functions as an oxymoronic mantra. And what does one make of his reference to the “water” inside “silence?” Language is obviously utilitarian on one level; specific meaning is conveyed. However, poetic language has the capacity to be incantational, to exceed limited parameters, inviting inspired interactions with the text. While Bond advances certain correlatives, themes, and conclusions, he also uses language to usher the reader beyond the dictates of specificity and the comforts of linguistic familiarity. This is accomplished in part via effective musicality, but primarily through deliberate convolutions and metaphoric syntheses; i.e., “yielding to [silence’s] wants” and “the hard fruit of deprivation” are phrases that clearly advance a sexual metaphor, one that conjures both tenderness and violence but is also textured with its references to “fruit” and suffering—an accessible but complex metaphorical palimpsest.

Over and over Bond is accessibly descriptive and transcendentally incantational. He opens doors that reveal doors (think a more humanitarian iteration of Kafka’s “Before the Law”). One might suggest that he both appeases and “deranges,” or at least confounds the reader’s senses. The poem becomes a current carrying the reader from recognizable shores toward alien depths, triggering responses that far exceed the content of the poem, the poet’s words stirring the entirety of the reader’s experience—“memory and desire,” Eliot would say—this life, and the lives that preceded it. Take these clear and cryptic lines from “Body and Soul” (Peal, 2009):

what to make of this night and the wreck
it lifts out of the harbor, out of the known

side of the mirror, to sink again each dawn.
To lift, the way the saxophonist lifts
the head of his exhausted tune, the lantern
in his bronze hands giving off what light

it can.

The phrase “known / side of the mirror” hooks and haunts a reader, invoking an emotional uncertainty and intellectual dissonance. Bond, however, is impeccable in constructing his metaphors. He conjoins the “lift[ing]” and “sink[ing]” of the moon with the weariness of a veteran saxophonist, in turn equating the saxophone to a dying lantern. Precise craft and masonic attunement to effective sequencing are clearly illustrated; however, details are often the gateway to infinity. Discipline sets a table for the muse. And/or: fortuitous accidents frequently occur as the result of relentless intention. It’s tempting to risk overstatement and say: Bond writes his poem; his poem does not write itself (or him). It’s more the case, however, that his meticulous attention to linguistic, metaphoric, and aesthetic possibilities necessarily gives rise to profound aesthetic gestalts. Dedication to technique precipitates an organic obsolescence of technique, liberation from habituated orientations and identities, textual possibilities forged which may have been entirely unanticipated.

Witness his self-portrait of the contemporary poet with the opening from “Audubon” (Choir of the Wells, 2013), how it grounds the reader situationally and temporally, the poem then expanding sonically and metaphorically before again contracting, as if in congruence with the breath:

The night my father died I buried myself
in a little language, a testament of will,
measured out the way the stonecutter

measures out our names to make them fit,
and as I leaned beneath the bell of light
to the cursor where it pulsed, I placed there

neither man nor the shape of his absence,
not grief as I knew it, but the tiny bones
of ink that grief made, rising to the surface.

While many contemporary poets operate much like an abstract painter who allows her brush to move according to impulses that spontaneously arise, Bond seems to be a student of Delacroix, Rembrandt, and da Vinci more so than Pollock, and the sublime iterations of his work emerge, again, from his impressive control and technique rather than reliance upon instinctive or energetic vagaries. His focused effort seems to have laid the foundation for a deep matrix, a subtextual realm from which arise aesthetic and interpretive possibilities that inevitably exceed the scope of authorial intent or volition. A reader is, in turn, prompted to consider the interrelations and alternations between mystery and understanding, imagination and labor, not only vis-à-vis the finished product but also in terms of the creative process itself.

The last section of the book includes new poems and is a fitting culmination to the collection. In pieces such as “The Invention of the Radio Telescope,” “Keats,” and the concluding “Furrow,” Bond continues to display his talent for extended metaphor, vivid imagery, and statements that both deliver direct impressions and occur as Zen Buddhist koans. Blackout Starlight is a milestone release from a poet who has absorbed an impressive array of sources, contemporizing and personalizing perennial techniques and themes. One can certainly read Bond for the sheer delight of beholding a thing well done. Fellow poets, however, will benefit from a deep consideration of his ambition, vision, and delivery.

John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer, More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy, The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris), and, most recently, Strange Theater (New York Quarterly Books). His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have been published widely, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He founded and continues to edit the Pedestal Magazine.