Charlie Bondhus’ poetry ranges freely through formalist, persona, image-strong free verse, and old school narrative.
His 2013 book All the Heat We Could Carry won the 2013 Main Street Rag Award and the Publishing Triangle’s 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Of the book, Carolyn Forché wrote:
All the Heat We Could Carry is a rare, brilliant and necessary book, offering a people who have lived well during the war a species of lyric night-vision, a camouflage night, wherein we are taught to field strip a rifle, but also to think about “the soul,/ a puff of wind/ shot from the mouth.” Our wars come home in these poems, through a prophet who’s seen hell, who now lives in the aftermath where all is refracted through the searing lens of wounded memory: “the sun now heavy as a blood ag, where it is hard to tell/ the difference between civilians and ghosts.” These poems move with precision from war to home and back, from stun grenade, body bag and bone saw to a garden in winter. If you want to know, or think you want to know, you must read Charlie Bondhus. If you want to know why, pay attention to the fifth section of his poem “A Talent for Destruction.” Bondhus is a true poet, and this is among the best books I have read in a very long time.
I spoke with Charlie about some of his current work, the conversations that open up between image and poet, poet and epigraph, and how his work has been inspired by the photography of his partner, Kevin Hinkle.
Speaking with me about your poem “Bird,” you said:
We don’t talk about HIV/AIDS anymore, or the fact that there are still people who are intentionally going off their meds because they just can’t deal with living on drug cocktails. Such was the case with Spencer Cox, a key player in ACT UP, who died last year. He haunted me while I wrote this piece.
The presence of death and the complexity of the situation are viscerally attended, here. The image at the close of the poem is particularly haunting, upsetting, sad:
some four-legged, purple mass,
limping and feral,
sniffing the earth, scavenging
This is for me a Kaposi’s sarcoma brought to life, of course, but also the creature that is mortality, the creature that is imminent grief, lurking at the edges always: a sympathetic presence, too. The living people and dog release the living bird from the house – and out there is the ghost creature, waiting to come in and hungry in language that is more about loneliness than horror.
The tension between the “two angry men” circling the imminent absences and “unpeopled bed” is drawn in language that also opens up more loss than anger, more vulnerable navigation of ancient and epic forces than real resistance to them, or to each other.
The presence of the ancient and widespread superstition about a bird in the house, via the epigram from Jia Yi, also opens up a sense of the mythic in this final image.
Talk with me about the images and experience of crafting this poem?
I’m doing a lot of poems that are birthed from lines of other poems or stray bits of prose. Many of these have come from old Chinese poetry. Jia Yi was a Han dynasty poet and politician who is chiefly remembered for his Daoist-influenced poem “The Owl,” from which the epigraph that opens “Bird” is taken. I found the line so evocative and, as you put it, mythic, that I knew I had to do something with it.
I’m not entirely sure where the AIDS/Kaposi’s Sarcoma piece came from. Although I wasn’t thinking of Spencer Cox at the time, I feel like he was in the back of my mind as I wrote this. When a terminally ill person voluntarily goes off their meds, it’s just so fraught–you’ve got a denial of the self-preservation instinct and questions about the right to die–which are huge enough–yet you also have to contend with the feelings of loved ones. Do you, as the one who’s choosing to die, have the right to make your lover watch you come apart? If someone you love has made this decision, are you supposed to fight them on it to show that you care, or are you simply supposed to support their choices, however much they may rip you apart?
As much as these questions speak to me, I’m a poet, not an ethicist. So I felt it was more my job to convey all of this without providing any answers, to simply give voice, give the experience.
You commented on the closing image of the four-legged, purplish mass. That was a hard-won ending. Originally, the poem ended at “the bundled and low-slung sky.” I wanted to convey a sense of open-endedness, an abruptness which I felt fits the abruptness of the speaker discovering his lover’s decision to quit his meds. I also wanted to leave the reader, like the characters in the poem, feeling off-balance.
However, that ending just wasn’t enough. It was too abrupt. So I added this vaguely defined animal to convey that sense of vaguely threatening uncertainty, something mournful and possibly dangerous lurking in the periphery. It took me awhile to get those last few lines right; I’m still not sure if the language is as strong as it could be, but I’m comfortable enough with it to send the poem out into the world. Then again, I suppose this kind of poem ought to stand before the world a little disheveled.
Yes, it ought to.
The creature of “The Octopus Jar” also becomes a vaguely defined animal onto which various projections shine, through various subjectivities: seagulls, sailors, psychoanalysts all engage this image with sharply drawn hungers of their own. In “Language Lessons,” the images crackle sharply at a more galactic distance that zooms in, by the last stanza, to an intimate second person closeness.
Then in “White Descent,” the subjectivity coalesces into an “I” – one that could easily be that of the poet archetype, intentionally sinking into language, “Filling my ears /a wet, white noise / I understood.”
How does this process of intentionally engaging an image and writing to/from/at it work for you? Is it different when working with language (as in the poems sprung from epigrams) vs. photograph (as in the ekphrasis poems engaging Kevin Hinkle’s work)?
For me there isn’t a huge difference between engaging image and engaging language because all language is essentially tied to image. Even an abstract word like, say, “deception,” can be teased into image. Think about medieval morality plays which personify virtues and vices, for example.
Whether dealing with a literal image–as in one of Kevin’s photos–or a literary one–Jia Yi’s bird–I tend to take a macro approach. Mentally, I zoom in, look at the details and use those as grist for writing. In a photo, it will probably be texture, line, color, like how I focused on the whiteness of Snowblind when I wrote “White Descent.” In a word picture, it will be some detail of the subject, like the bird’s “black, convex eye.” White and black. I guess color really is important to me, at least these days. Although in a poem I’m working on right now, I’m zooming in on the ridges on the underside of a mushroom, so there’s texture.
In any case, I take the image, dig into the details, and see what meaning I can mine from those details. That’s where a lot of compelling ideas and connections come from for me.
Read “Bird,” “White Descent,” “Language Lessons,” and “The Octopus Jar” by Charlie Bondhus
Charlie Bondhus’s second poetry book, All the Heat We Could Carry, won the 2013 Main Street Rag Award and the Publishing Triangle’s 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His work appears or is set to appear in numerous journals. He is the Poetry Editor at The Good Men Project (goodmenproject.com).
Kevin Hinkle‘s work has appeared in juried exhibits and journals including the Baltimore Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, and The Tulane Review. Both his minimalist and layered images reveal elements of abstract expressionism. He is now absorbing work by artists such as Letha Wilson, who incorporate photography in mixed media work.