Michele Bombardier, What We Do (Aldrich Press)
Michele Bombardier’s What We Do (Adrich Press, 2018) is a compelling showcase of personal witness. Bombardier is a speech language pathologist, attentive to human behavior and fluent in verbal and non-verbal communication, and her debut primarily consists of lyrics born of experience. While many of the poems wear the trappings of the quotidian, Bombardier has a talent for revealing the emotional core of situations that are fundamentally complex, and at times, heartbreaking: cancer diagnosis and treatment, severe aphasia, a baby born in triage, a father’s alcoholism, the death of a child.
The poet’s attentiveness matches the trait she describes in “Rise Like a River”:
Son, I want you to learn to listen
like a fly fisherman listens
to the splash of river over rock—
to the pooling and the stilling,
for what lies underneath.
Bombardier’s insight extends to the emotions people hide from themselves, as in the Pushcart-nominated “To the Father in My Clinic Who Said No Child of His Could Have Autism and Never Returned”:
Grief startled in you, a knot of bats
rising and darkening the windows,
obscuring the view of the landscape
of your dream for your son.
In addition to pointing a perceptive lens at others, Bombardier looks inward, and there are poems of self-investigation throughout the book. She avoids the pitfalls of either self-pity or martyrdom through a combination of straightforward syntax, the slightly distanced perspective of a clinician, and a lightly self-deprecating sense of humor. She recognizes her vulnerability as a child coming from, “a home that crackled / with violence.” (“Western Red Cedar”). She describes the fear that surfaces when a son passionately argues in Arabic with a taxi driver in Damascus, and explores the grief surrounding her husband’s illness and the death of loved ones.
Bombardier’s language is deft and imaginative. There are a few traditionally formal pieces, including a ghazal eulogy, and we find playful moments like “Aphasia Testing,” with its quatrains of musical, almost-sensical phrases (“If I shush when I shatter will I shine?”). But most of the poems are free verse narratives rooted in place. We read about the poet’s home on a Pacific Northwest island, refugee camps in Jordan, a synagogue in Prague. Bombardier takes us to kitchens and clinics, a schoolhouse toilet, the forest canopy, a sex toy store, a mountain in Syria, a local diner. We travel back in time as well, to Ellis Island in 1923 and D-Day in Normandy, and even listen in on an envisioned direct address from Moses to God.
Bombardier’s imagination serves her well, especially as it contributes to her empathy and compassion, which permeate the book. One of the best examples of this is “Taste of Sweetness,” in which she describes spoon-feeding her dying father:
The time for words had passed
and my father, who did not speak
to me for years, blinked
as he reached for my hand
raising the spoon to his lips,
his hand I knew
from earliest memory as fist,
as slap, as rasp
as he pulled off his belt.
I fed him, I tell you,
like I fed my own babies,
the answer to my long wondering
what could happen
if fear left the house.
The voice in the collection is colloquial, but the tone is chiefly reverent, and there is a devotional stance in many poems. A boarding pass and bag of nuts earn their place on an alter in “Belief.” A diner is compared to a “chancel table” (“Breakfast at The Local Diner”). And in “Ode to The Pacific Northwest Winter,” living off of canned food while homebound is likened to, “eating shrine offerings, symbols of surrender, a type of devotion.” Several pieces read like prayers, including the title poem, which opens, “There I was Lord” and describes the speaker in a garden, “impaling / fat, green slugs like they were Amalekites.” She sees a doe and her fawn walk by; there is a loud cracking sound, and the doe emerges from the woods alone, to stand frozen in place. The drama grips reader and speaker alike. Bombardier writes, “I held her gaze as long as I could. / Lord forgive me” and “Like mothers everywhere, she wanted a witness.”
The gardener eventually breaks away and closes the door on the tableau. But more often, Bombardier remains present as witness: during her husband’s cancer, in her work with patients with aphasia and with incarcerated women, or while on a run with a friend who herself has witnessed “the worst possible” during a night shift in the ER:
The parents she says.
The parents I answer.
Every half mile, she says it again
with ragged breath, a call and response,
a confession, a supplication,
a two-word prayer. (“The Parents”)
Bombardier’s impulse to identify the holy within the mundane provides moments of magical realism as well. The opening poem, “Fireball of Sin on a House of Prayer,” describes a ritual burning of slips of paper on which are recorded transgressions. The list grows so long, it turns into a smoldering “fireball of sin tinged with sorrow.” In the second poem, a wasp attack is transformative: “The welts / have faded but I know poison remains. / I got fire in me now.” (“New Blood”). A porous boundary between everyday life and the otherworldly results in visitors from beyond, including angels and a hummingbird seen as a reincarnated mother-in-law. What We Do has its fair share of ghosts as well. “Self-Portrait” opens, “My parents, my children and my dead weigh my cart.” The dead populate memories and dreams, and we read of “the footsteps of those on the other side” in “The Quick and The Dead.” The specter of an unpredictable father, in particular, haunts the book.
In keeping with its examination of the seen and unseen, What We Do is also an exploration of belief. Sometimes that belief manifests as magical thinking. “The Beginning of Faith” describes an imagined wall behind which a child hides from her father’s attention at the dinner table. “Survivor” is about the speaker’s childhood belief that her shadow “sang hymns / no one could hear,” and “elongated / at eventide” as an expression of praise. Bombardier writes that the shadow, “covered me at night, and when / that was not protection enough, she bore witness.” “What Comes” describes the futile belief that a lost cat will return, and the poet’s grief-stricken logic when a friend has died: “Somehow I believed if I stayed awake / I could pull her back.” And in “Belief,” we read:
Tell me if you carry a talisman of catastrophe
.in your pocket, and I will call you sister.
Maybe this is faith.
Several poems acknowledge the faith required to surrender to loss, and others describe accepting the unwanted with grace, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis or a cup of coffee. “Adherence: A Cycle of Sonnets” takes on the question of belief in a Father God with whom a child might bargain for protection from a human father; but it also explores belief in God as Mother, and belief in the power of witness and in faith itself. Bombardier writes, “I believe myself seen, believe in holding / close to what I can’t see.”
This is a collection that bears witness to the human capacity to move forward even during the most difficult circumstances. Although filled with specific examples, as its title suggests, What We Do is about an ongoing, commonly shared action: the juggling of loss and love that we all perform with varying degrees of success, and which Bombardier has undertaken with fierce compassion, giving her every reason to claim, “I got fire in me now.”
Rebecca Patrascu‘s poetry has appeared in various publications, including American Poetry Journal, Pinch, The Marin Poetry Center Anthology, and Digging Our Poetic Roots. Her reviews have been published in Prairie Schooner and Colorado Review. Patrascu is the author of a chapbook, Before Noon (Finishing Line Press).