The professor of my contemporary poetry course has given us each a chance to present a book published within the last ten years. My presentation was over Slamming Open the Door, (Alice James Books, 2009) by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. We discussed the book mostly in terms of its overall effect as a project. The topic is every parent’s worst nightmare–the death of a child. Ms. Bonanno’s daughter Leidy was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, and the book chronicles some of the moments of the family’s trauma, from the night she and her husband find out what happened to their daughter, to the trial, and the memorial service.
It’s a gut-wrenching book that is successful as a collection because it stays very honest–the speaker allows the reader a glimpse into her experiences, without decoration or maudlin metaphors. The poems read as though they were written in the moment, yet they are grounded in concrete images. The pacing and sequencing of the poems are also effective. There are flashbacks to when Leidy was adopted, as well as to her graduation party, where the killer first appears.
Slamming Open the Door does not come out of an academic tradition of poetry, even though the author is a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review. Although American literature includes countless examples of poems about grief, most of the poems in our literary canon are either formal, or pay great detail to the flow of the language.
To me, writing highly stylized poems would not accurately portray the raw grief of a mother whose daughter has been strangled to death. On the other hand, staying true to the bestial nature of raw grief requires a certain measure of control that Ms. Bonanno maintains throughout the work. These are poems that had to be written, as the speaker explains in the first poem of the book, “When Death Barged In.” If the book were mine, I imagine I’d have to force each line to appear on the page, while at the same time feeling the utter necessity to write them down.
The intended audience seems to be anyone who has suffered an immense loss, whether it be the death of a child, or a spiritual loss of some kind. Anyone who has lived through tragedy would sense that for a brief moment in time, the speaker was able to relieve herself of her enormous grief by sharing it with others. I hope the writing was therapeutic for Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her family, and Leidy, are in my thoughts and prayers.
I first heard about Ms. Bonanno’s collection while listening to Terry Gross’s interview with her on NPR. I highly recommend listening to the interview–Ms. Bonanno reads several of the poems with feeling and inflection. Her sorrow and rage come across in the reading, as does her self-effacing sense of humor.
In his New York Times review of Slamming Open the Door, poet David Kirby brings up the concept of subjects for art that some have considered taboo, such as the Holocaust, but he then defends Ms. Bonanno’s writing by saying that the raw nature of the poems redeem them from any criticism that she might be exploiting her tragedy to make art. One of my classmates mentioned that art is often born from an apocalypse, as Elie Wiesel proved with his memoir, Night. Our professor also cited the poetry of Paul Celan as an example of poetry that has come out of the Holocaust.
One of the reasons I chose Slamming Open the Door is because I’m searching for a way to write about my own life in the form of poetry. I ask myself, how does one write about an event without turning it into a plea for pity or a tract against others? How do we make sense of past events without, in my case anyway, unduly exonerating ourselves? Ms. Bonanno didn’t allow herself to escape uncriticized in her poetry memoir. She put herself under the spiritual microscope as much as she did her daughter’s killer.
Poet Andrew Hudgins,* in his essay, “The Autobiographer’s Lies,” writes about using one’s own life as material for poetry. He discusses the idea of how looking at the events in our lives distances us from the story and gives us the ability to look at ourselves as characters in a play or a novel.
In her interview with Terry Gross, when discussing her poem “How to Find Out,” Ms. Bonanno states that she felt she was acting out a role she had been given by fate: “Mother of the murdered daughter. So in effect, I use – I speak directly to the reader in second person in the poem “How to Find Out” as if now that I’ve gone through this, I’m capable of teaching the next actor in the play.”
Of course, in actuality there’s nothing really that could prepare us for this type of monstrous grief. The directions Ms. Bonanno gives us are almost ironic, because the subtext is that there is no rehearsal for how we will react to the murder of a child. No cop dramas on TV, no courtroom scenes, not even honest poetry can ever completely prepare us for a scene we never want to be in.
The most we can do is read the poems and try to put ourselves in the speaker’s place. Because on a spiritual level, what happens to one of us happens to us all. As Annie Dillard has said, we are all swimming together in the same tide of time. For this reason, I’m very glad Ms. Bonanno has had the courage to write about her experiences. We who read the book will put on our sack cloth and cover our faces with ash along with the speaker, on a spiritual level.
Slamming Open the Door is a mother’s wail to the universe. That huge loss we know is coming, the day our child leaves home to strike out on her own, descended upon this mother like a monster, and part of her life’s journey now is to slay the beast that this loss has created. The book has become the speaker’s rite of passage, a boat to transport her to the side of time where she can get up in the morning and go to work with at least a glimmer of hope that the grief will someday subside.
Because of the brutal honesty of this book, the sequencing, the simplicity of the language, and the many concrete images, Slamming Open the Door is a highly convincing, successful collection.
* Thanks to Dana Guthrie Martin for sharing this essay with me on her thought-provoking blog, My Gorgeous Somewhere.