A review of Divining Bones by Charlie Bondhus
By Charlie Bondhus
When I looked over the table of contents in Divining Bones by Charlie Bondhus my prejudices against poetry concerning witchcraft and demonology started shutting down any openness my mind might have had. There are eight poems titled “Witchcraft and Demonology” and several concerning Baba Yaga, the Russian folkloric witch/goddess. But I glanced at the author’s biography and saw that he is an experienced, award winning writer and I’d better take a chance and read on. How lucky for me that I did.
This is one of the most imaginative, surprising, interesting and inspired collections I’ve seen lately. Mr. Bondhus writes poems that mystify while, somehow, making everything seem clear. He uses a little humor, a Russian witch pulled from folklore, sex – sex that is often explicit, references to demons and even the mundane stuff of everyday life to intrigue, entertain and, at the same time, bring some kind of enlightenment to our common condition.
Skill with language, a fine sense of craft and striking images fill every piece. Read this section out loud from “Guilt Keeps us Busy; Violence Makes Us Creative”:
a gun rack to store your hunting rifles
which were sprawled across the kitchen table
like centerfolds and I built a jungle gym
for the little boy who lives at the end
of the cul-de-sac.
This is a relationship poem which leaps from this kitchen to an appearance by Jesus and on to the perception of God as electric power, and then to an expression of longing for children never born. It’s a complicated poem and yet it blends high and low counterpoints to make sense of the whole.
The eight “Witchcraft and Demonology” poems are something like footnotes in the biography of the narrator. And the Baba Yaga poems, including “Portrait of My Mother as Baba Yaga” “Baba Yaga and the Child” “Portrait of My Husband as Baba Yaga” and the amazing “Self-Portrait as Baba Yaga” allow the author to inhabit this folk-character in ways that illuminate his own personality and his relationships with other people. Perhaps the best lines that exemplify this come from “Self-Portrait”:
Later I cruise Coney Island
in my mortar and pestle, but
only the elderly Soviet emigres
and granny fetishists pay attention...
When out-of-town children
Ask my gender, I tell them
I’m a witch.
These lines contain strains of loneliness, feelings of pain at being different, and yet wonderfully accept the comedy of life. A crystallization of the book's overall emotional theme. In the fourth stanza it feels like the author is throwing in a Polish speaking tortoiseshell cat and a tortoiseshell comb for comic effect. But the lines add to the surreal quality of the poem while emphasizing a sense of wonder about it all.
This collection ranges from surreal word pictures to slightly tilted vignettes of home life. There are memories couched in poems about magic. Narrative poems appear that demand acceptance of alternate realities. Other poems show us that every kind of relationship shares similar problems. Lyrical lines, like those in “A First-Grade Production of Oedipus Rex” bring us to a level of discomfort, disturbing our thinking while compelling us to think more. In fact, every poem in this book demands real attention.
The collection concludes with a prose poem disguised as an unfinished short story titled “The End”. But its incomplete last sentence brings a realization that the story is far from over. A device like this could seem amateurish. Not here. This author handles it with such engaging language, such maturity, such a fine continuance of repeated metaphor, that we are with him as we add our own imaginary next chapters.
Combining all the elements of fine poetry – musical and surprising language, engaging images and great leaps of imagination, an understanding of craft and using it with a deft and subtle touch, striking emotional revelations – is not often a realized achievement. Divining Bones has that combination and deserves a place on your shelf of the best modern poetry.
Dover, DE. His chapbook Silence, Interrupted was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for The Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.