What we do: a statement and question. The sorts of ways we interact with life and death, delights and tragedies, privilege and lack of access. As in, we do what we do. How we require each other. How everything, everything, can be witnessed as sin, blessing, or nothing at all.
Michele Bombardier’s first book, What We Do, is a weighty meditation on the events of a life, possibly hers. Its fifty-six works in three sections cover an array of subjects including sickness and death, family and religion, white privilege, and a glimpse into the poet’s other career as a speech language pathologist. The glue holding everything together is empathy, a universal human reflex.
In “Waiting Room,” Bombardier’s fluorescent imagery builds a prosaic and unappealing space: low tables and magazines, one with “stories of survival on the tundra.” Enjambments needle lines as the poet employs second person. Is the poetic voice speaking to the husband or to the reader? Whatever the case, each personal you triggers a memory. Each statement awakens the reality of what you did.
only your home bedroom. You close your eyes
to see the cedar swaying outside your window.
You wait for the nurse to mispronounce your name,
make the same joke as you take off your shoes,
step up on the scale. You’re relieved to get the surly tech
Bombardier’s “On the Last Day of Radiation, He Brings the Staff Cheesecake” is a prayer in the disguise of a step-by-step recipe. “She pretends to read as he gets down the good springform pan, / smears the butter, opens the cookbook. He looks / at the graham cracker box, puts it back, pulls out the flour.” The poem reads slowly, elongates time; lines start and stop with few breaks. “She watches him scrape the white bricks, / zest the lemons with the grater, not the zester.” The man bustles in the kitchen while the woman listens intently. No interruption. After a “jiggle-test for doneness,” he cracks the oven door. Only then is the woman relieved. “When she imagines him on the other side, / she feels pressed under water. He can bake a cake. / Somehow this brings her a sweet bit of relief.” What we do? We nourish.
In “What I Want To Believe,” the speaker seeks an ally, someone to help validate a moment. She finds comfort in symbols. “I want to believe that the hummingbird that helicoptered over my ear / was my mother-in-law, back for a visit”—answers from a time long past, from a time wrought with the frustration of power and place. Echoes of the mother-in-law’s voice fit in the poet’s mouth.
Sometimes though, she sat at my kitchen table,
lit Newport in one hand, screwdriver on-the-rocks in the other.
I’d pore over Bon Appetit or Gourmet, making Paris-Brest gateau,
warming cream and chocolate for ganache, or stirring bouillabaisse.
She’d wave her cigarette at me. Fish sticks, she’d say.
They’d love ‘em. We baffled each other.
And then later in the same poem:
Now my vegetarian daughter-in-law
refuses dairy and sugar, brings her own spelt crackers
and sunflower butter when they visit. I want to believe
my mother-in-law can smell the grey-brown paste, that she hovers
in her chenille bathrobe right outside my kitchen window.
Bombardier unsentimentally addresses the memory of an abusive parent in “The Sins of the Father.” She writes, “You were uncomplicated, / a simple despot, a true believer / in the sovereignty / of your explosive emotions.” She questions change resulting from the passage of time, of growth birthed from loss.
Years after your funeral,
your calm, bemused nocturnal visits
sharply contrasted the memory
of the livid father housed
in the recessed hippocampus of my brain,
belt in hand, arm raised.
Who are you now?
What we do? We conjure spirits to remind us how to live.
The themes of Bombardier’s collection blend well with those of her life in the medical field. As a neurological and developmental language specialist who works with patients managing stroke, autism, and brain injury, she channels—in her writing and in her real life—the skill most needed for effective healing. Human connection. Her piece “To the Father in My Clinic Who Said No Child of His Could Have Autism and Never Returned” honors the human demand to protect loved ones. It also describes, in two stanzas, a before and after. The comma and empty line between the poetic sections offer an extended pause. Like a gasp to mirror the moment a parent receives bad news.
at me, the criminal fortuneteller,
your eyes fixed on my mouth.
I see you hear only thunder, see
my mouth open and close like a fish.
My words fall on the floor, crash
then slip away like waves over sand,
leaving a trace of rivulet behind
like the tear we both ignore
that snuck from the corner of your eye
leaving its white salt track
down your cheek.
The line “I see you hear only thunder.” Notice the senses—“I see you hear” suggests that to see what someone hears is to resonate with someone. For a brief moment, to become them. What we do? We feel what others feel.
Bombardier also takes time to analyze her own whiteness. In “My White Self Tries to Imagine,” she writes, “Francisco, my student who is six, / shows me his hands, balled into fists.” This image creates tension—a young Latinx child posed like a wall, protecting himself from a white-skinned adult. Still, Bombardier looks closer.
He looks at me without blinking,
then chews, hard, the knuckle of his thumb.
I work to keep my face soft,
say what we say to soothe children,
pledge like the other grown-ups,
to keep him safe.
But can she keep Francisco safe? The suggestion is no, yet readers are left with a blank half-page to further question the possibility. “White Christmas” demonstrates her inquiry into the luxury of safety and personal abundance. The first stanza ends with, “It’s Christmas / and mortar shells light up Aleppo.” The second stanza does an about-face. “We brought our tree / at a local grocery, / bags of oranges, milk, bread. / We cram into our Prius.” The poem offers facts: “Northern Syria / gets electricity / two hours a week now, / no more fresh water.” And, “blankets / distributed by lottery.” Short, poignant lines deftly up the stakes. The poet asks readers to think. What we do? We move into spaces beyond hope.
Michele Bombardier’s debut collection of poems tells an array of stories. From the specific to the mundane, each allows entrance through craft elements or universally human experiences. As in “Breakfast at The Local Diner,” Bombardier writes, “I come back / every week, wait for a spot / at the chancel table, for my turn, / for my cup to be noticed and filled.” Two are required for noticing. What we do? We yearn for a hand on our shoulder.
Each work in What We Do uplifts the self and the other as if they are the same. And maybe they are? Maybe the most important word in Bombardier’s collection is we?
Tom Griffen is a writer and artist. In 2015 he received his MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK Magazine, Adroit Journal, Belletrist Magazine, Oregon Coast Magazine, The Rumpus, Chapel Hill Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner, and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. He’s now writing a book about it. Follow him at www.tomswalkinglife.com.