Book Reviews

Conversation as a Bower

by Hannah VanderHart | Contributing Writer

Connie Voisine
The Bower
The University of Chicago Press, 2019

A dwelling. A place of shady rest along a journey or quest. An inner retreat. A grove of trees. These are some of the definitions trailing the title of Connie Voisine’s fifth and newest book of poetry, The Bower. A travelogue and long poem in sections that suggest the form of cantos, The Bower’s cover features the center detail of Blood Tied, a painting by the Northern Ireland artist Rita Duffy. Duffy’s painting depicts a woman and child holding hands in a red-lighted wood; the woman’s foot is caught in a trap, staked to the ground, and the child looks on as the woman reached towards the trap and her own foot. The relationship of Duffy’s painting to Voisine’s book-length poem—themes of relationship, danger and protection and also the suggestion of Dante’s dark wood and his wandering poet-speaker and companion—are made apparent in the book’s opening section, which begins:

The summer before we packed for Belfast, my daughter D
grew committed to butterflies, crossing streets at a flash

of color, crouching in the grass by peonies with hands
cupped, still until she pounced. D, the terrible queen

of insects. Fireflies were cake work, ladybugs too random.
She argued with me, I will not touch their wings. Impossible,

though I pretended otherwise.

These first six and a half lines absorb the reader in the intimate narrative of a mother and child—a narrative that is nonetheless aware of the reader and listener. There is a nostalgia in these opening lines that speaks to both writing of place and how quickly children grow up, particularly in relation to violence. The speaker offers a form of chronology by way of her child’s art project:

. . . For weeks she’d been working
on a moving panorama, a scroll depicting a Scottish ballad

about a lover who builds a bower of wild mountain thyme
all around the blooming heather, and she sang for me

without shyness its refrain, Will ye go, lassie, go?
as we walked together.

The Scottish ballad enters the poem as part of the collage along with the child’s singing. Yet the environment of the poem, and the mother and child relationship, is not an island, and the narrative takes a sharp turn as it describes, “But a bloodied shirt was stuck / to tar at the end of the alley, and a tall, Kevlared cop / pointed her manicured finger towards the trash cans, / a stack of abandoned suitcases.” Consonance and assonance sonically disrupt the poem’s narration (“But a bloodied shirt was stuck / to tar”), and it is a tree-of-knowledge moment for the child and mother witnessing a violent aftermath. The speaker interrupts her description to note:

. . . “Panorama” comes from the Greek

“to see” and “all.” In the nineteenth century it was a popular
form of entertainment, the painted scroll cranked

through images and stories while a narrator called
the Delineator recited, sang and stirred feelings.

It is this calm, self-reflective, sometimes self-ironic voice of the speaker that Voisine’s reader comes to trust in The Bower—a voice that knows it is performing intimacy for strangers, taking personal narrative and experience and crafting its own panorama from them. The speaker knows that the poems are recited and sung to stir feelings—that is the art. Important to note here, too, that The Bower’s opening section takes place “the summer before we packed for Belfast,” presumably stateside. That is, this violent crime, an “isolated incident,” has its own layers of intimacy and occurs in the speaker’s home neighborhood in the United States. As such, it cannot be read as a caricature of violence abroad, in Belfast. The opening section takes care to note how, presumably anywhere, “a darkness” can “[puncture] the silken sun, / the slippery ordinary.”

After the relation of the crime scene, Voisine’s first section returns to the Scottish ballad:

. . . The ballad much later

finishes, If my true love she were gone, I would surely
find another, which makes me laugh. The replaceable

beloved, the next true one for whom the fragrant bower
always waits beside a crystal fountain. D. says,

You got it wrong, Mama. She knows I built the bower
for her and all the butterflies she will capture.

The lyrics of the ballad, the speaker’s laughter and musings, the child’s response to what the speaker gets wrong (how the ballad is sung?) are grafted together so that the reader barely notices the seams. The figure of the bower, the handiwork of the speaker-poet, gathers the sources to itself. One definition of a bower found in the Oxford English Dictionary is, “a vague poetic word for an idealized abode, not realized in any actual dwelling.” Voisine’s bower is idealized but also, one senses, actual in the way the butterflies are both idealized and actual in the line describing, “all the butterflies she will capture.” This is one of poetry’s gifts: to recount history and enact witness even as it deploys metaphor and symbol.

A mythical clew rolling through The Bower is the Irish tale of the Children of Lir, found in the child’s book of Irish legends. The legend of the royal-children-turned-swans becomes a narrative touchstone for The Bower’s speaker, and a means by which she is able to reason about human failing: “We’ve all done it—wanted something much and more / than given and so Aoife, the stepmother, became jealous / of Fionnuala and her brothers, the children of Lir.” “It’s a kind of greed,” the speaker explains, “that love, not really / a love at all. We’ve all seen it.” The Children of Lir legend enables the speaker to speak of personal betrayal by a close friend and how,

. . . When her face turned mask,

I remembered my own turning and all my awful goodbyes.
I wondered what she had not told me, not once,

of what she’d wanted.

This self-reflective moment (one among many) in The Bower brings to mind an interview with Caroline LeBlanc, in which Voisine notes that, “. . . Belfast can be seen as a place where notions of community have really been negotiated and renegotiated. The Good Friday Agreement between Catholic and Protestant organizations, signed nearly 20 years ago, wobbles, threatens to fail, and then rights itself over and over. Public housing and education is still segregated. Yet, peoples’ lives are intertwined in so many ways. As always.” Active communities are imperfect and, as The Bower’s speaker and Voisine separately attest, involve multiple forms of mutual empathy, care, and self-reflection to survive—as does writing about such communities, particularly when the speaker is an outsider and visitor. In the same interview with LeBlanc, Voisine discusses the care of writing about place:

Moving to New Mexico made me aware of how careful I must be when writing about place. Having come from an insular, very specific culture myself, I am sensitive about cultural appropriation. There’s a huge risk when we graft our own imported-from-elsewhere feelings and experiences onto the experiences of others—maybe it’s how we at first connect, but it’s not the deepest connection. My basic strategy is poetry as praxis, maintaining an active, open empathy through connections to my immediate community. Anybody who’s been to my house knows that often people call on us for all kinds of reasons. Being from small town Maine, related to just about everyone one way or another, I was well trained in the habit of connection, community, and helpfulness. The other parents at school, my neighbors on my street, the dog walkers in the park across from my house are necessary to my poetics. Maybe I make a small town out of wherever I live. This is as essential to writing for me as anything else.

Voisine holds the on-the-ground, community-engaged poetics of The Bower in tension with its title’s promise of protection, safety, and care. What emerges through Voisine’s long poem is that conversation and speaking with each other is integral to the possibility of community reconciliation—concordantly, it is not a poet in an ivory tower, or a mystic, or a hermit that one encounters in The Bower, and the figure of the bower itself is not simply one of retreat and preservation. The scholar A.C. Hamilton writes of Edmund Spenser’s bowers in The Faerie Queene:

The shadow and enclosure of bowers are psychological as well as physical. Bowers are places of intensified inwardness, where distinctions between inner feeling and its outward site disappear…But at the same time, [Spenser] is seeking a true inwardness in which ‘civill conversation’ might be grounded: the hidden bower from which, in a world of trackless wandering and false tokens, both noble behavior and authentic language may flourish.

Hamilton’s discussion of Spenser’s bowers reinforces Voisine’s contemporary reimagination of the bower: that the bower is a place which fosters conversation and relationship (e.g. that of a mother and her child), but also the inverse: that our conversations with each other create a relational bower. The conversations taking place in The Bower—between the speaker and her child and spouse, neighbor and grocer, cab drivers and friends, teachers and museums, art and signs—propel the poem, and Voisine’s skill with collage adds to the success of the many voices and conversations filling The Bower. In a litany of “fiats” in the book’s penultimate section (deriving their grammar from the litany of Genesis: “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, / and let it divide the waters from the waters”), the speaker states, “Let there be a woman wandering // and why not let her separate anger from living. Let there be a child / in a bed that divides that bed from the rest of the world.” In a closing that sounds more like a blessing or a hope than a performed command, the speaker affirms, “Let there be one thing / that can divide fear from fear and the known from this only night.” Voisine’s The Bower is the vehicle for such preserving acts of division that provide both speaker and reader with a greater vision of place, community, and living with each other—a vision where empathy and conversation are central.

Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina, under the pines. She has poetry and reviews published and forthcoming in Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review, The Adroit Journal, RHINO Poetry, and elsewhere. Her book, What Pecan Light, is forthcoming from Bull City Press in 2020, and she is the reviews editor at EcoTheo Review. More at: hannahvanderhart.com