Consider, for a moment, the humble banjo. Folk I travel with are fond of such jokes as “You know what you got when you throw a hundred banjos in the ocean?” The banjo is almost ridiculous in appearance, when compared with its cousins, the guitar & mandolin (add a bass, and you've got a bluegrass group). It has a loud brash sound, which cuts across the dreadnought guitar, chopping mandolin, and the dancers' feet.
Dave Bonta considers the banjo with just the right mix of seriousness and humor in his latest chapbook, Breakdown: Banjo Poems (Seven Kitchens Press). These poems take the reader on a little history of the instrument, both literal and imaginative.
The collection begins with the ominous sounding “Banjo Apocalypse,” which borrows heavily from the Book of Revelation. This may seem irreverent, and the more tender and easily offended reader may close the book immediately. It would be a shame if you did; you not only miss the fun of this first poem, but the fun journey of the poems which follow.
An “apocalypse”, of course, is a story of the end times (I write this on the supposed date of Ragnarok). And it seems odd to begin a collection with thoughts of the end times. The poem begins by giving the angels of John's vision seven banjos rather than seven trumpets; this seems right — the banjo blares & blasts (in its way) like a trumpet. After an imaginative breakdown of the banjo's construction, the poem closes with these lines:
And the seven angels
which had the seven banjos
This suggests that what is to follow are the sounds of those banjos, for the angels' trumpets sound in John's vision prior to the opening of the scrolls which describe end time events. Immediately, the collection turns from future end times to history — the fraught history of the banjo, which reflects our American history.
For we can't fully consider the banjo's history without addressing the issue of slavery. The banjo was stolen, in a sense, with its owners when European nations kidnapped people from Africa and brought them to the U.S. It's a troubling history; this collection does not shy away from it.
The fourth poem, “Catskin Banjo” is especially telling and (compared to other poems in the collection) relatively graphic. The narrative revolves around a cat, but it could also be about a female slave. The cat's fear could also be a slave's fear.
I don't want to give the impression that the collection dwells on this early history — just the first few poems directly reference the banjo as a slave's instrument. Other poems reference early minstrel days (five have “Medicine Show” in the title). One of the poems in the “Medicine Show” set reminds us that Shackleton took a banjo & banjo player to the Antarctic.
As a watch-repairman's son, I especially enjoyed “Open-Backed Banjo”, which compares it to “our only god the clock”, asking
Where's the balance wheel?
The gear train?
There's nothing there “... but a bare rod / & the smell of rain.” The ghost in its machine calls the narrator to make his hands those of this time-keeping machine, to
Play it, son!
Make it ring like a hammer on steel
& rattle like a Gatling gun
until it smokes.
Bonta's irreverent sense of fun returns with “Banjo Proverbs”, which "steals" from the KJV translation of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, substituting "banjo" for "fool" or "foolish" in the original. Perhaps it's just me, but the banjo here seems more than merely foolish — it “mocks at sin”. A player returns to it as a dog returns to his vomit. “Forsake the banjo,” we're told in the final stanza, “and live”.
Many poems deal with the origins of the banjo, from the gourd in “How Jefferson Heard Banjar” to the mechanisms detailed in the opening poem and “Open-Backed Banjo”. One of my favorites is “Banjo Origins (3): Jesusland”, a playful imagining of how banjos might grow on trees. And how the banjo once followed the Grateful Dead. Side note: Jerry Garcia was a bluegrass fan, as detailed in the documentary “Grateful Dawg”.
Although the collection is headed “Breakdown” there is no other reference to bluegrass in the collection. Elsewhere, Dave has said he prefers the claw-hammer style to Earl Scruggs' new-fangled style. Earl Scruggs is best known for his partnership with Lester Flatt, but he began his career with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys; it was Scruggs' banjo which gave the genre its distinctive sound.
A breakdown may be an instrumental (e.g., Foggy Mt Breakdown) or a break in a vocal song. This collection is an extended piece, with theme & variation — history, dream, myth, wonder. It's a charming collection, a worthy co-winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize.
The chapbook is worth its $9 cover price. I also encourage you to preview the series on Dave Bonta's Via Negativa site, where they are prefaced (or presaged) by a series of Moving Poems.
Order a copy of Breakdown: Banjo Poems from Seven Kitchens Press.