Sunday, February 21, 2010

Read Kathleen Bonanno's "Slamming Open the Door"

Art based entirely on a singular event, situation or concept for it's emotional impact often runs the risk of being at best gimmicky and at worst exploitative, so it was with some apprehension that I initially approached Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno's debut poetry collection "Slamming Open the Door" (Alice James Books, 2009), which chronicles the murder of her daughter Leidy (pronouced "Lady") and the trial that followed.

Yet the concept of utter loss that creates the narrative arc of the book -- an arc as tightly executed as any collection I've read -- is what gives this collection its power, the sheer emotional force of which rivals that of any contemporary literature now available.

Bonanno lives in Oreland, Penn., and teaches English at a nearby high school. She also is a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review, of which her husband David also is an editor. I spoke to Bonanno recently by phone for a newspaper article I was writing in advance of a reading she will be giving at a local college late this month. I was particularly interested in asking her about “Poem About Light,” which is the last poem in the collection but was the first she wrote, just days after her 21-year-old daughter was strangled by an ex-boyfriend.
The poem seems more optimistic, more hopeful than the rest of the collection, and I asked her if there was anything telling about the fact that it was written so soon after the event.

"I think that it's telling about the grief process, which is not simply a solitary walk in the deepest darkness," Bonanno said. "At least for me it wasn't. It was partly that, it was partly about the comfort of the people who surrounded us. It was partly the joy of the memory of her. And somehow, through it all, even the hardest times, I knew that there is always still light in the face of shade. That one doesn't exist without the other."

The poem was read at Leidy's memorial service, and Bonanno read it aloud to Leidy's murderer during his sentencing (he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole).

"The other thing is that was sort of an empowerment poem in the sense that it's basic purpose was to suggest to Joseph Eaddy, Leidy's murderer, that he didn't have the last word," Bonanno said of the poem. "That Leidy by her nature had the last word. That his attempt to make her nonexistent was an impossible feat. The sun will rise tomorrow like it did yesterday."

It may be because my wife and I had our first child -- a daughter -- this past October, and thus I'm more susceptible to the tragic possibility of losing a child, but Bonanno's acutely honest collection had my heart in a Vise-Grip from start to finish. Im fact, I can't remember being so emotionally affected by a collection of poetry.

When toward the end of our interview I asked Bonanno if she found herself continually pulled back to writing about Leidy's murder, she said she doesn't feel pulled to write a "sequel" to the story or another collection about the event, but she does think Leidy will figure into her future poems "in the same way that my most important relationships will figure into my poems in the future. But I'm not called to keep writing that story that way."
Instead she's working on another collection -- the working title is "Oh, Suburbia" -- that's "sort of a consideration of the suburbs and what really goes on here. Sort of the beauty and the horror and the fascination that is the suburbs."

"My intention was to write a book of love poems, sort of love poems to the universe, some of them romantic poems, some of them just poems that were celebratory of life," Bonanno said, laughing. "Turns out, I don't have enough love for the universe to write a full collection, so that’s quickly becoming a chapbook."

Bonanno was interviewed by Terry Gross for Gross' "Fresh Air" program on National Public Radio, and the segment aired on July 29, 2009. Listen to the interview here or read the trascript. You can read poet David Kirby's favorable New York Times review of Bonanno's collection here.

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