The exuberance I felt in my first encounter with the poems of Bonnie Maurer—I can still remember it clearly. It was the late 1970s, and Bonnie’s work crossed my desk, and I was entranced. Here was a poetry that included seriousness, sorrow, and yet play. Here was a voice, deeply rooted in Indiana, which also expanded its reach globally to include various populations and world events. It’s a shame when we fall out of touch with a particular poet’s poems, as I had with Bonnie’s—in this case for perhaps thirty years. However, the joy one has in reencountering a poet once loved is palpable, especially if that poet continues both the core impulse of her poems and the trajectory of the early threads of that work, which was the case with Bonnie.
I love being able to feature a group of poems, as I do here, of a poet who has so clearly devoted her life to the practice of making poems. The poems of Bonnie’s that I’m featuring this month—all published here for the first time—reaffirm my faith that some poets find their subject matter and obsessions early on, and (if fortunate) deepen those concerns into a poetry of even greater vitality as the decades move forward. Of all the elements of Bonnie’s that I admire (and there are many), I perhaps most enjoy the way she mixes the personal with the public. Where do our personal selves end and our public selves begin? Bonnie Maurer seems to suggest that this line of division is slippery, elusive, and perhaps not all that important. Her poems—sometimes singularly, and sometimes in combination with one another—embrace that point of contact, making it a fertile ground of poetic inquiry.
I hope you enjoy this month’s feature, which includes a group of Bonnie’s poems and an interview. Indiana is teeming with marvelous poets and imaginative writers, and I hope this feature of Bonnie’s work demonstrates how some wonderful Indiana poets are all around us, doing the important job to which we, as poets, have devoted our lives. The Wabash Watershed is fortunate to have her work as just one way to highlight our state’s poetic abundance.
Enjoy her work! Delight in its richness!
Bonnie Maurer holds an MFA in poetry from Indiana University. Her poetry chapbooks include Reconfigured (Finishing Line Press, 2009), Bloodletting: A Ritual Poem for Women’s Voices (Ink Press,1983), Old 37: The Mason Cows (Barnwood Press,1981), and Ms. Lily Jane Babbitt Before the Ten O’clock Bus from Memphis Ran Over Her (Ink Press,1979 and Raintree Press,1979). Under the auspices of a 1999-2000 Creative Renewal Fellowship, Maurer composed a series of breast cancer poems culminating in the book, The Reconfigured Goddess, poems of a breast cancer survivor (Blurb, 2013), and her cancer poems have been featured in The Cancer Poetry Project: Poems by Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them (Fairview Press, 2001, 2013). In 2012, she was awarded a Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship to visit Holocaust sites. Maurer’s poems have appeared in such magazines as Indiana Review, Lilith, a feminist journal, the New York Times, and Nimrod. Her work has also been featured on IndyGo buses, on a CD of Central Indiana Women Musicians, and in the anthology, And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana (Indiana Historical Society, 2011). Maurer grew up in Indianapolis, where she now lives and teaches as a poet-in-the-schools for Arts for Learning. She has conducted poetry workshops for the homeless in recovery, for the HIV+AIDs affected/infected population, and others, including a current workshop with patients for the Live Forward grant at St. Vincent Cancer Care. Maurer works as a copy editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal and as an Ai Chi (aquatic flowing energy) instructor at the Arthur M. Glick Jewish Community Center.
Himmler’s Lunch in Minsk 15 August 1941
——————————-(from his diary and an excerpt on the museum wall at Terezin)
What did he eat for lunch
in the Lenin House, the SS headquarters,
at 1400, just after attending the morning
Einsatzkommando squad boys
taking turns to execute Jews near Minsk,
where reportedly brains splashed his face
and he turned a greenish shade of pale,
and hey! he told the boys there,
terrible it all might be,
even for him as a mere spectator,
how much worse it must be for them
to carry the killing out and
he could not see any way around it.
“And reportedly he came to the view that it would be
necessary to find a more suitable and effective
killing method that would not have
such a disheartening influence on the executors,
particularly with women and children among the victims.”
With what relish did he dig in his knife and fork? Was he
ravenous for lunch? With what eureka! This inspection trip—
the moment the gas chambers came into being.
With what hearty hale did he slug back his beer and lick his lips?
Love and War and the News, 2002
I am brushing my hair in the mirror
for the chance meeting
with my lover at the dentist’s office.
And I am thinking of pulling him
into the stairwell
before the dentist’s door
and kissing him in the corner
and he will have no part of this and I will be
stuck standing on the Midwest flats
of the stairwell in my own film-noir fantasy.
The man I am passing on the way to the dentist
is picking his nose enthusiastically
and I am reading a poem in my car
about Midwest romantic bullshit. (I still want love
and still don’t know how to get it.)
Love always wags
its betrayal tossing up fools-
gold and dust behind and you can
quote me on that for your country song.
My mouth open: wide, wider, widest.
I leave before my lover’s appointment.
It is January 2002: India stuffs land mines
into the patchwork of their Pakistan border,
batting for the newest peace quilt,
and the sad lion,
and his zookeeper, Mr. Omar,
in Kabul, stare back.
Mr. Omar must decide who
is going to eat,
he and his seven children
or this lion,
one-eyed from a grenade blast,
king of all of us, beasts.
In the dream before the war
he is running away. He has to
cross the embankment.
You have a tough job,
the dream tells him, but you
are going to be safe on the other side.
At the roundup in the town square
accused as a sniper, he is going to be
shot. This is not a dream.
Then he is let go.
He digs under the floor and hides
until they burn his house down.
He runs in the dark
across the embankment to the forest.
He digs a hole at the base of a pine
and lives for three months
buried like a mole.
He dreams of God’s light.
He joins the partisans
in the forest and stands
guard with his gun. Three years
he never brushes his teeth
or changes his clothes. He eats
swamp berries, a dead horse,
raided potatoes. He dreams
the blessings of bread and salt.
After the war, he dreams the enemy.
You have to run away, the dream tells him.
And he is afraid to run.
They will start shooting.
He wakes up.
The Russians tell him if he works
for the railway, he will not have to
join the army. He pulls weeds
from the tracks, which means
he is looking for mines. Every night
he is the dream of a thousand pieces.
He remembers another dream
before the war. At his neighbor’s
house someone is killing the chickens
and the blood is running, is
running down from the roof.
I remember the beat of childhood:
one foot, then
two, when you
across the sidewalk after a rock.
And that year when my palms sweated
holding my partner in the middle school gym,
you traced the outlines of a new box.
How you gained your cha-cha confidence,
cut loose your own jitterbug snap.
And in high school,
marching in my new dress shoes
my dad bought for me and when
I took them off to blisters, red and sore,
he called you barking dogs.
O feet, 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 muscles,
one hundred ligaments. Distant cousin to fin,
you speak the alphabet of pleasure,
barefoot in sand and sea; then talk the math
of engineering, toeing my lover’s side of the bed.
O my jaunty swingers, my forward thinkers,
my shock absorbers, leaf rustlers, pencil-picker uppers,
with you, I bear the weight of the ages.
Even as I kick up my heels, and click in the air,
you land firmly planted on the ground.
Do not become callous or
flimsy as lace. Take me
to that chocolate shop in town, to
the gallery at the square,
to the Jazz Kitchen on the avenue.
What Happened to the Hickory Shades Motel
which I would paint in Cezanne squares—
ginger orange, mellow coral, chalk
blue—and to those metal chairs by the doors—luminary yellow—
we slouched in, you and I, new lovers? Remember
the two of us waking at dawn to an ordinary autumn,
kicking the sycamore leaves, brown and broad as mitts,
and geese lifting off into high sky with the fly balls—baseball,
not even on our minds, really—
out here rocking in those two metal chairs
attached by their hips and armrests some ghosts from the thirties
gave up for us, lovers, you and I, dangling legs, and mine reaching
over to your blue Levied lap before you depart?
I would hang this painting in the middle of nowhere
on the road’s curve—bend in our thinking—together
we can do this and we did.
All the orange maple leaves pointing to us,
nodding yes like the bobble heads of dogs
on the dashes of Corvairs in the 60s never quit.
This is the painting of the Hickory
Shades Motel you said why? to and I said for the name,
the reason we eat a tangerine or kumquat,
now a still life, washed in discreet white,
now offering a free breakfast
and one white plastic chair out front.
So Here We Are at Last
long teeth and gums
receding, but where,
into what universe?
Greetings, dry tributaries
camped around my lips
waiting for the salve of his kiss.
Hello, creases in my forehead, formerly
the blank canvas—read joy,
surprise—now my flag
always rippling worry in the wind.
Good morning birds: Chickadees
waking in my knees,
it must be you singing,
Long-legged shore birds
walking just under the thin skin of my hands.
And oh, arms and thighs,
as you slack into loose folds like silk pajamas
you are my Zen gurus.
“Let go,” you teach me,
even when I hold him tight.
Yes, buttocks, what fruit
does not sag as it ripens?
My halves of peach, no painter’s still life.
I have heard “age-old wisdom.”
Now I know it is the ego’s way of
soothing the body, saving face.
“Whimsical Seriousness, or Serious Whimsy”: An Interview with Bonnie Maurer
By George Kalamaras
George Kalamaras: I’ve long admired your work, Bonnie, and I’m so happy to have it for The Wabash Watershed. While your poems often speak of pain and delve into obviously serious matters, they also often include joy, the sacred dance of life, and a whimsical quality that communicates a rich balance. Could you talk a little about the role of joy in your work—the sometimes-playful quality of your poems?
Bonnie Maurer: George, you got me! I keep a statement by the French novelist, Collette, in my office: “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.” I don’t use this as a guide, just as a support, especially when I feel my “playfulness” may be tipping me over the edge.
I think these poems come from my desire to create a celebratory moment. I want to cultivate the spontaneous energy of what’s happening around me, and then I do find delight in my sense of humor.
In one of my cancer poems, it was recently pointed out that I revealed influences of e.e. cummings, Zen koans, and nursery rhymes. I enjoy the process of writing the poem when I can surprise myself and at the same time strive for that click of insight or clinching image.
Then again, taking myself too seriously is difficult—such is the life of the middle child.
Professor and poet Roger Mitchell once said about my work: He didn’t know whether I had a whimsical seriousness or a serious whimsy. Probably both.
GK: I love Roger’s observation! He’s always had a way of perceiving and expressing the most profound insights. So there is play in your work, and I love the balance it brings. At the same time, there is profound gravity in your poems as well. What do you find you’re the most passionate about in your writing—topic and theme-wise? In other words, what have you found yourself returning to—if anything—over the years in your work, even if approached from different perspectives?
BJM: That’s a good question. I believe it was the poet Richard Hugo who said to write about your obsessions. And I pounded mine out early on: my father (and the subsequent iterations of lover), food, and art, which really had to do with a woman in endless pursuit of love, finding, losing, finding. My chapbooks: Bloodletting, Ms. Lily Jane Babbitt before the Ten O’clock Bus from Memphis Ran Over Her, and Eating the Still Life (a manuscript I still might send out one day!), all have to do with that woman. Incidentally, two of the poems you chose, “Love and War and the News, 2002” and “What Happened to the Hickory Shades Motel” reveal those obsessions and can still stir my heart.
At forty-nine, my breast cancer diagnosis was a jolt. I began to create a series of poems about this life-stunning episode. This took my work in a new direction. I intended to tackle the serious issues of feminine identity, the body, fear, surrender, grief, the land of cancer, family relationships and more, but not without some humor. I believe I accomplished that. Then (fifteen years ago), I read that society was beginning to embrace women with breast cancer in a new, empathic way and I felt compelled to add my poetic voice to these changing times. (See Reconfigured Goddess, Poems of a Breast Cancer Survivor, 2013.)
Recently, I came face to face with Holocaust sites in Poland and Prague. I invited this challenge so that I could re-energize myself, delve into my cultural heritage, as an American Jewish poet. What I discovered was how the Holocaust took possession of me. I had interviewed a survivor (“Meyer’s Dream” is one poem from that interview) and read numerous survivor stories, becoming that necessary witness Alvin Rosenfeld, IU Holocaust scholar, speaks about, but little did I know what an intense emotional adventure I would be taking. The Holocaust is a potent and daunting subject that keeps unraveling and revealing more and more horrific evil and, yes, redemptive stories as well. There seems no end. But I would never have thought, for example, that after visiting Terezin and reading an excerpt on the museum wall there, that I would later spend an entire day off writing an angry poem about Himmler. Why? Because somehow it was necessary that I do this for myself.
Now I am not sure which themes I will return to. I am hoping that travel will continue to inform my work as well as family, my cultural heritage and those transformations of love.
And one of my now not-so-secret yearnings is to write a haiku as simple and reverberating as Basho’s frog jumping in that pond.
GK: You mention Richard Hugo above. Who are some of your favorite poets—that is, to whom do you return often? And what, in particular, do certain poets give you and your work?
BJM: George, I can only tell you of the pile beside my bed right now: Alicia Ostriker’s books. After attending her reading at Butler last year, I have returned to her work. Now I am interested in how she writes about her Jewish roots and aging. A dog-eared volume of Lisel Mueller. I often carry this book with me. Her work is so accessible to me and feels so true. She starts out unassuming, then connects you with the cosmos. I was inspired to write “O Feet” after teaching kids her poem, “Work to Be Done,” in which she addresses her hands. Alice Friman’s work. She is a friend and mentor. I learn from her intense work, rich imagery, and poems tight as a girdle. (Who remembers those anymore?) Then a Billy Collins book. His casual, comfortable poems are like jumping in the car to go to the store and back, but on a circuitous new route that makes you laugh. Native American poems, which I am using in the classroom now: How I love the ritual language of bold, repetitive declarations. So much to study in this pile.
GK: I love hearing what is piled in the various rooms of poets, Bonnie, and I’m delighted to hear of your rich array! Yes, Alice Friman was such an important voice and presence in Indiana when she lived here all those years. And I’m sure you’re not the only person to have benefitted from encountering her voice (and person). This makes me also wonder how your encounter with Indiana, in general, has affected your writing. I mean, you are an Indiana poet, so can you say what influence, if any, living in Indiana has had on your poetry? Is the locale important? The people? The history? Or does Indiana figure in only as a backdrop to your consciousness?
BJM: George, I have been waiting for this question. I’ve lived in Indiana most of my life. I understand the gentle slopes, easy on the eyes, slow to rise; the flat fields, their gradations of color and texture. I know the birds, most trees, the memory of summers at the lake, feet dangling into the cold green, the fishy smell of blue gills and perch on my fingers; the weathering barns and road signs. The Indiana landscape nourishes my imagination, allowing me to see again and again—the white river, the blue heron lifting from the shallows, the scruffy woods where I caught butterflies: monarchs, mourning cloaks and cabbages, learning to love their common names and all their weedy camp outs: milkweed, thistle, Queen Anne’s lace. If I were faced with the Rockies day in and day out, I would be a different poet, maybe all angles and heights, and stark flight, the trembling aspens. In Bloomington, I lived across the street from cows for ten years. Cows were the vision from my bedroom window. Cows appeared in every poem. The Indiana landscape is the desk I work from.
But I wouldn’t mind trying out the South of France in my old age!
GK: What you say about Indiana certainly resonates with me. You’re obviously deeply connected to a sense of place, even purpose. I love how memory unfolds for you and is still a living presence. Speaking of memory (the past), as well as the present, I’m curious about future work or projects you have in mind or may be leaning toward. What can you say about where you might see your poetry headed?
BJM: George, this is the most difficult question. Right now, I plan to round out my disparate collection of poems from the last couple of years to create a new chapbook I can send out into the world. Then, I’d like to find a project—follow monarchs to Mexico, or write about the best places to kiss in Paris (I should make a list poem.) As I alluded earlier, I love the stimulation of going somewhere to write, even when the white pine boughs are waving to me in the backyard.
Thanks, George, for all your questions and the opportunity to contribute to The Wabash Watershed.