University of Massachusetts Press
Reviewer: David E. Poston
Section III of patmos, Bruce Bond’s new book-length poetic sequence, begins:
I was just another creature crawling from the mausoleum,
and I thought, so this is it, the place in the final chapter
where I’m judged for my cruelties, blunders, failures of attention,
and I waited for the furies to take me, or some such host.
But it was just another morning. My mother was asleep
and would not wake again. I am here, I said. (27)
patmos is the thirtieth book in a stunningly accomplished and prolific career, a collection in which Bond continues to explore memory and identity, loneliness and loss, faith and doubt, and the power and limits of language. Like a skilled jazz musician, Bond plays subtle new variations on favorite motifs: fire, smoke, ashes, dreams, the sea, the sound of one hand clapping. In patmos, music is playing in empty rooms, questions about faith are asked simultaneously of the reader and speaker himself, and the end of time is continuously present.
Before opening patmos, one should note the radio telescopes on its cover. Throughout the book, Bond makes references to radio stations, to the stars he calls “fires nailed to nothingness” (16), to the search for something out there: for whatever the woman gazing up to the heavens on that cover might be looking for beyond the clouds obscuring her view.
Inside patmos, which won the 2021 Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts Press, one will find five sections of nine octets each, in lines of typically fourteen to fifteen syllables. It is telling that throughout patmos, Bond asks many questions, but never uses a question mark. He has moved beyond the expectation, if not the need, for answers to the questions he raises. Like the ocean, one of the central metaphoric vehicles here, his voice and perspective constantly shift—or, more precisely, he is at once self-addressing, quietly sharing with the reader that “sublimity so old in us it feels like the future” (45) and addressing no one at all. This book lives in the liminal spaces between the last note of a song and silence, between the present moment and the ever-present end of time, the edge of the ocean eating the shoreline, the edge of language reaching beyond words:
You wake, you rise. In the style of mourners and bells
and modern oceans, you overfill your borders. You open
a door and, in your leaving, enter a sea that is everywhere
the air we breathe and so in every age. Wherever you go,
the story of the end keeps wafting back from a distant place,
the words blurred, rhapsodic, if eroded, but here you are,
free to move, to hear in the long strides of the breeze, whatever
you most fear and desire, where your need to speak begins. (29)
Section I begins with “the radio at the end of time” playing “Auld Lang Syne”
…in a room alone.
It is a New Year’s favorite about forgetting or not in the form
of a question. All these years have ended with a question.
All these questions with a room alone. (3)
The book ends with Olivier Messiaen performing his Quartet for the End of Time, composed while he was a POW at Görlitz.
In one of the most memorable lines here, Bond acknowledges the isolation we all feel in the current age: “John of Patmos lived on an island, and who in the age / of broken trust does not” (39). He recognizes the way that “the blinding of the news is hopeless” (4) and constantly inflamed by angry voices. A later section opens with this terrifying apocalyptic image: “After the bombs to end all bombs descend, an angel, / blown back-first toward the end of time, looks this way…” (45). Here are the nightmares that our age engenders, such as when the speaker calls his wife’s name “into a tower of fire” in a dream that blurs into waking, ending with “the ax of dawn” (46).
Section II addresses childhood struggles with faith and doubt, such as this passage addressing the speaker’s childhood self:
you are at the table again, head bowed to what you cannot,
will not, eat. And you know you mom worked hard.
She tells you. You feel guilty, if not a bit empowered.
You pity the meat, how it died for you. And will not rise. (43)
There are exquisite passages about grief:
Today I felt the first snow
falling in my hair. I felt a younger self step out of my body
beneath the dark towers of the pines. And together we stared
into the fire, transfixed. Whatever our burden, the light would
bring us closer. Light devoured light. Grief, grief. Whosever
ashes these, they feathered upward into heaven. With the snow. (9)
Moments of comic relief are provided by a fly baffled by a windowpane, a black funeral hearse that is the “jewel of the neighborhood” (19), and the old poetic and philosophical trope of talking with one’s cat. That cat, however, transcends the merely comic:
Hey, she says, without a bad connection,
what good are dreams. What good are we without them.
Why beat the mattress with our hearts, if not to pound
a message to those too close, and far, and never there at all. (55)
The book’s epigraph is from Weldon Kees, “The Smile of the Bathers,” a poem Bond also referenced in “Cremona,” included in his 2016 sonnet sequence Black Anthem: “…No death for you, listener. / You whom the music has no word for.” Kees—his life, his body of work, and his death—looms behind patmos. Here, Bond addresses Kees directly:
No death for you. You are involved. So ends the poem
by a man whose car they found abandoned by a bridge.
No death certificate, no last note either, only the parting
glance in his open line, the fading smiles of the bathers.
But even as the poem starts with departure, at least we know
our author was there, once, in the water. He gave it form
as bodies do. (56)
Both Bond’s Black Anthem and Terrance Hayes’s roughly contemporaneous American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) are book-length sonnet sequences that breathe new life and purpose into that form. Hayes uses the sonnet as a political tool, incorporating the vernacular, referencing pop culture, raising an ironic ruckus about “black male hysteria.” Though much more than ephemeral, Hayes’s sonnets are more temporal than those of Black Anthem—or what Bond is doing in patmos. Like Hayes, he shows the ability to move from the vernacular to the sublime. Hayes touches deep wounds, both personal and societal, while Bond goes deeper into, and beyond, the human experience.
Bond demonstrates in patmos the same unadorned language and mastery of form found in Weldon Kees, though the eschatology of patmos transcends the postmodern bleakness of Kees. Perhaps not being burdened by “black male hysteria” makes it easier for Bond to reach the transcendent, but Bond also reaches the heart of our common human experience. The most striking example for me:
If not heaven, why not this. Why not paradise as the meal
between us, the story you are telling, how you and I would make
it mine. Why not the night your father carried you asleep,
from the Hollywood Bowl to the car. Or was that your dream
on the long ride home. It’s all talk now, and the deeper we go,
the more the talk gets quiet, small, as if with eyes of the sleepless,
we are entering the bedroom of a child, and you say, I buried
my father in his works on earth. And I whisper, me too, me too. (23)
Do not look for answers here, for prophecy. Do ponder how deeply so many quiet moments can resonate with us, as with the following:
The wandering of the desert fathers must have felt,
some days, a little pointless. But the one day after,
everything spoke. Every crystal burned with the call
of a castaway searching the sky. And then, it stopped.
Like talk at the table, when the house begins to shake,
when earth says what every silence whispers. I am here. (57)
Bond might be speaking quietly in an empty room, but we hear him.