Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods
Paula Bohince (paper, $14.95)
Sarabande Books, 2008
Reviewed by Jennifer Malesich
Avoiding the recent industry trend of single-word titles for first books, (Ruin, Crush, Frail-Craft, for example) Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods belies the lushness of its title with fierce, sparse lyrical poems that root Paula Bohince’s first book of poetry in the rural—a landscape of mud and muck, shrouded by clouds and flocks, and lit up by the occasional fox and the flitting red of robins and orioles. The collection proceeds through its three sections in a narrative fashion, with flash backs, foreshadowing and dreams, but Bohince’s work does more than tell a story or create a sense of place; it creates an intense emotional landscape in which the speaker must acknowledge her life in relation to her father’s, and respond to his sudden death.
What happens is murder. But first we are introduced to the scene of the crime. The first section grounds us in the sensual, domesticated world of a farm in rural Pennsylvania. There in the “gauzy ruin of October rain,” it is autumnal and moody, full of animal smells, sounds, a world with its own inventory. The section navigates the past, evoking memories of the father and a troublesome childhood of poverty and ruin on the farm. Some of the poems are set in the present tense; we are there with the speaker in the rue of adolescence, the awkward age of change, the lonely, single daughter of a single, and emotionally distant, man. Throughout this section, and the rest of the subsequent poems, the knowledge and self-awareness of the speaker begins to transform into an intelligence that extends beyond the fences and ditches, beyond the youth of the speaker, and settle, into the emotional nether regions of grief and loss. She writes her experiences through the language of poetry because often in the stark, silent rooms of her father’s farm there did not exist a language to express their “secret sadness.” It is only “when a girl is raped, left crumpled in a tree stand/ wearing only a muzzle of ice, her mermaid hair frozen/ in weird angles,” do “[her] father and [she] start talking.”
In the second section, we see the crime scene and meet the men who commit the crime. Lucas, John and Paul, plucked from the New Testament are given a new gospel, a point of view. “My apostles,” her father jokes. It’s not an unraveling mystery novel because we learn of their guilt readily enough. The speaker who knew these young men growing up was not on the farm at the time of the crime and must come home to confront the carnage. How much time has passed is not specified; there is no identifying of the body, no rituals of burial. Instead the poems remain in the emotional mind of the speaker as she deals with the absence of the father. In the poem “Cleaning My Father’s House” the daughter takes an inventory of her father’s personal effects—“his pale blue Easter suit, his Bowie knife, its leather sheath/ branded with Nashville, Catholic medals,/ a finger’s length statue of Christ in agony on the cross.” She sits in his room “among the locusts and the crickets, their good-bye duet,/ their chitter and squeak of So long.” It’s as if by touching and smelling “his scent of gasoline/ and tobacco” that the speaker can understand her father at last, at least enough to surmise this assumption:
I think my father was a boy, an unhappy child
who played with guns and trouble, who had a daughter
by accident, each of us bewildered by the other.
It’s dark outside, end of the longest summer.
We met once, in this life. Even the ash in his ashtray
seems precious, impossible to be rid of.
There are hints of young teenage lust between the speaker and John in “When I Think of Love.” And reading this makes me wonder about her feelings towards those “apostles.” Was she jealous of their fragile friendship with her father? What about her feelings for John, who we learn pulled the trigger—does she know the specific details since she wasn’t there at the time of the crime? The memory falters. How much does she really know? The murder leaves a gulf for the speaker to steer through so that certain narratives have to be created to satisfy those things she doesn’t know. There emerge speculations, ruminations, a conjuring of the father’s spirit through the material, and a natural world left behind with his ghost running through it.
The uninhabitable worlds of birds and fish, the mysterious realms of air and “the pond” texture the collection with images that mimic the emotional flights of the speaker. In the beginning, it’s the chickadee with whom she abides, “a little obsessed/with her mirrored chimes, her baffled image.” There are “snow geese” in migration, “hand-fed pigeons,” “three orioles” that resist her “usual lens of pity,” and a “robin.” Birds, like messengers that flit and tease, who with their magic add even more of the unknown into the realm as the speaker struggles to understand why they are always leaving, migrating. The “pond” exists as the masculine world in the world of the farm, a kind of wasteland that traps and keeps things in its stagnant run-off water, the “apostles” and the father being more water-borne than the women. In “The Gospel According to Lucas,” Lucas describes the fish as “experts /in the discipline of water, the element/we borrow.” What the speaker recalls about the pond, besides her father’s swimming “is one sheep/who left her lamb in summer/to swim the pond-turned-mud.” The other animals mentioned in the poems are ordinary, plain. On a farm largely dictated by the shabby world of sheep and chickens and deer, this collection avoids the obvious poetic devices of fancy horses and rich cattle. There is no glamour, no romance. The one horse that is mentioned does not even have a name—it is just called “my little horse” found “ankle-deep in freezing mud, clothed by the bristle/ of November evening.”
The final section of the collection has a sense of voice that feels more mature than the other sections. Now, years after her father’s murder, the now-adult speaker has taken residence at the farm, her lonely inheritance, and she’s forced to embrace and accept that position. And she does:
This is my life,
bent over splinters, six cords’ worth
stacked against the shed’s eastern wall.
This is my coat, shaking off cold.
Royal jelly at my nostrils, I eat my thimble
of honey, drink my capful of whiskey,
snow blurring the outhouse
into something pretty.
When she recalls memories now, those of her father especially, there is no sense of guilt or shame. She’s bold to say, “I loved one person all my life,” meaning her father. A beautiful honesty brims forth—“I can’t tell what’s good or awful anymore.” She’s generous with memories and dreams about her father—
Then I’m with him, in the barn
damp with birdsong, thrushes thrilling the eaves,
air perfected by oat-dust, the sweetness
of kerosene, the breathing of horses
lost to the mortgage.
By the end of the book the emotional effects of the loss have taken on a different form, the edges have softened, the memories have sweetened. In her first collection Paula Bohince has written grief into a grace that glows, “stranded,/dazzled by white flowers.”
Jennifer Malesich’s poems have appeared in Southeast Review, The Greensboro Review, Louisiana Literature and Fourteen Hills. She lives in Missoula, Montana.