Thursday, June 24, 2021

Review: Failed State, by Dave Bonta

Dreams are portable axes mundi. An axis mundi is another term for what the Celts called a Thin Place, where worlds meet, that liminal space where we become aware of both the phenomenal and noumenous. Tellingly, the Australian aborigines call it the Dreaming.

In the introduction to his latest collection, Failed State: Haibun, Dave Bonta tells us this collection was drawn from a dream journal. When we are attentive to our dreams, we journey into what Jung called the Collective Unconscious. The symbols we encounter are both personal and universal. The environment of the Collective Unconscious is affected (or infected) by the concerns and events of Waking Life – again, both personal and global.

The front cover image on Failed State is titled 'waiting room,’ credited to Robert Couse-Baker. Slightly off-center in a black-and-white waiting room is a color image of a television with flames displayed on its screen. My immediate assumption was the poems would reflect the 2020 dumpster fire. But no, in his introduction Bonta tells us he began work on this collection five years ago. These haibun reflect ripples from Syria, Somalia, and Libya. And the orange-tinted flames of our own little corner of chaos.

But Dave does not begin his collection with political concerns, at least not in the traditional sense. He begins from his front porch. One of my daily delights is following his Twitter thread, Morning Porch, in which he daily records what he sees from his porch each morning. It is typically refined, honed, and particular. This prosody is reflected in much of Dave’s poetic work, including the first poem in this collection, “From the Spring and Autumn Annals”:

A falling leaf reversed course and flew. It sailed up over the trees and didn't stop until it reached a forest inside a cloud in Mexico. You were left with a double loss: of the leaf it wasn't and of the warbler it was. These are the kinds of subterfuges you recognize from dreams.

After two more equally poetic paragraphs, Bonta responds with a haiku:

pure spring
water bottle

This mix of prose and haiku continues throughout the collection, in a form called haibun. This descriptor follows the title on the third page. The form is best known from Narrow Road to a Far Province, by Basho, considered by many the master of Japanese haiku.

Which begs the question: What is haiku? In high school, we were taught a syllable count for each line: five / seven / five, with an emphasis on nature imagery. Digging deeper the student learns the Japanese syllable is nothing like an English syllable, and may move toward Imagism, qua Ezra Pound, or a free American form, as practiced by Jack Kerouac. Dave Bonta’s haiku is closer to Kerouac than the formal syllabic method I was taught. It often captures my personal definition of haiku: an emotional picture postcard (in your free time, check out Woodrat photohaiku for other examples).

These haibun imply a dialogue between the prose section and the haiku. I have found at least four variations: Distillation, Reflection, Commentary, and Philosophic. You can see all three combined in “World Bank” (page 11;), which is also a classic nightmare scenario of being lost in a foreign locale. The final paragraph has this distillation:
trapped inside
a moth’s day-time dream
of being human

This daydream is undoubtedly related to the story of the monk who dreamed he was a butterfly and was uncertain, upon waking, of whether he was a monk who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed it was a human.

Certainly, the title World Bank reflects a sort of nightmare, and almost requires a trigger warning for liberals like me.

Nightmares are the dark side of the dreaming. Joseph Campbell, among others, would tell us it’s best to confront them and plumb their depths. This collection certainly plumbs those depths, becoming increasingly nightmarish in each section.

For me, the nightmare reaches its climax in the Human Resources section, which applies the practice of “found poetry” to the CIA’s Human Resources Training Manual of 1983. Just the fact that such a document exists is nightmarish enough, but we can read (if we dare) clinical descriptions of the best time to make an arrest (early morning) to the most effect methods of torture. Then we can be shocked by the poetry found in the selected paragraph. For example, “The Torture Situation” yields this:

may actually intensify
is no
thing but
a show
of strength

Then, we wake. Troubled by dreams and visitations. We rise, turn on the radio, and hear of our failed state. The title section of Bonta’s collection returns us to nature, to a degree. But there’s an edge here:

“And now for today’s forecast…. You’ll see a rabbit sprawled in the shaded driveway: its left foot points toward hidden water. You’ll learn to ignore the spreading desert in your living room…. You’ll pretend those are mice scrabbling in the kitchen and not dispossessed migrants laboring to convert rainforest into soybean plantations.” [from Don’t Need a Weatherman, page 78]

This may sound like a frightening journey, but it is worthwhile. Join Dave Bonta in exploring these dreams and confronting these nightmares. In the end, you might find yourself at the center of the world, on a front porch, admiring the woods.

Order Failed State by Dave Bonta

1 comment:

Tom said...

A very nice appreciation. Thank you.