Friday, December 13, 2019

What We Do
by Michele Bombardier
(Kelsay Books, 2018)

Reviewed by MaryEllen Talley

This debut collection of poems by Michele Bombardier begins with a vignette of youthful spontaneity. Two hospital clinicians on a break are igniting past indiscretions written on paper to float like ashen butterflies out a window. In the poem, “Fireball of Sin on a House of Prayer,” the unprofessional yet emotional release of ashes becomes a small fire on the roof of a trauma unit, a metaphor for the well-trained but immature women dealing with the challenges of providing services for impaired patients.

    Frantic, we poured our cups of cold coffee, contents
    of our hospital-insignia water bottles dousing
    the sizzling remnants above the heads
    at those staring up at the ceiling below.

The importance of such moments of release for a fledgling speech/language pathologist (SLP) become obvious in the deft images of poems such as, “Baptism,”

    His hand a fist as he pulls the catheter
    from his crotch to above his head,
    an arc of movement and mustard color urine
    dousing me, my clipboard, and my intern name-tag,
    his head lolls to one side, his eyes closed.
    I pull up the chair, lower the bedrails.
    He bats at my hand. When he finds it, he quiets,

As the clinician dry heaves later in the bathroom, Bombardier shows us the aftermath both minimally and compassionately. Readers cannot help but feel the experience. The speaker calls her brother, telling him to promise to always wear a helmet. The incident is evidence that she has found a calling in a profession where success will be measured in small victories. She told her brother that the ten minutes she spent at the patient’s bedside holding his hand had been enough to calm his agitation. No amount of training could have prepared the clinician to deal with this challenge.

While most poems in this collection are not formal, “Adherence: A Cycle of Sonnets” ties together poems about the author’s father, religion, nature, and the past with lyrical loveliness: “when I noticed the sweetness was ocean / couched in brine on my tongue.” Bombardier is an adept multi-tasker, a form in and of itself, and is able to create a confluence of skillful poems on diverse topics: her clinical career, her husband’s cancer, her sons, her family’s Jewish and Catholic heritage, her father’s challenges with residue from WWII and with alcohol, and international crises close to her heart. Rather than overflowing their thematic banks, the scope and variation of the poems weave to highlight the complexity of a woman, wife, mother, daughter, clinician, and humanitarian.

Bombardier’s collection is often self-effacing, as in the poem about her mother-in-law, “What I Want to Believe,” in which she describes family gatherings:

    Once I brought a Buche de Noel
    on her holiday table, next to her Jello

    banana pudding with Nilla Wafers. I was insufferable
    and she forgave me. 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.

Likewise, grandparents bequeath significant memories. In “The Song and Dance Man,” Bombardier reminisces about her grandfather wearing a Derby hat and breaking “a chain of seven generations / by not becoming a rabbi. Another word / never spoken in our house: pogrom.” Such silences can become a survival trait in a family. In the poem, “My Grandmother Comes to Ellis Island, 1923,” readers learn that her grandmother never mentions a baby left behind in the old country,

The poet addresses her father’s tribulations as well. Although Bombardier writes in the sonnet, “A Toast to My Ghosts,” regarding alcohol, “I like my wine to taste like relief, which means only one glass, sometimes two,” she also writes of being a child smelling fear, “I’m four again and he stumbles down the hall.” Bombardier alludes to the ghost of her mother, “She put up posters to cover the holes / in the walls.”

As time bears witness to changes, the adult daughter cares for her father in poems such as, “A Taste of Sweetness,” which describes how she “loved feeding my dying father” using skills likely honed in the hospital setting, “tapping the spoon / soft against his lips, waiting / for his bird mouth to open.”

    The time for words had passed
    and my father, who did not speak
    to me for years, blinked
    as he reached for my hand


This collection is not about Bombardier the parent or penitent. However, motherhood and spirituality are never far from her musings. “Sometimes All We Hold is Prayer,” beautifully recounts a phone conversation with her son who had just become a father after a dangerous delivery:

    And they realize they are moving, rocking
    side to side, holding
    their son through the little metal box

    and a thousand miles. The three of them
    softly crying, then breathing,
    not wanting to release the weight in their hands.

Bombardier’s love of living amid the water and trees on an island in Puget Sound has infiltrated her son’s life. In the poem, “What the Arborist Hears,” she writes that her son asks the tree for permission before, “the grip and embrace, the pull / up and into the canopy, that foreign land.”  She instructs her son in another poem, “Rise Like a River,” how to be a feminist,

    If you were my daughter, I’d want you to rise
    without asking, spill over your embankments.
    And to those who would dam you,
    I’d want you to rise higher, to push
    your currents against what holds you back.


Close to the end of the collection, in the poem, “Ode to The Pacific Northwest Winter,” she writes of family and resiliency in the context of weather, “The rain continues its long blue song, / humming lullabies even as we rise in the dark,” ending with,

    If we’re lucky, we’ll lose power, stay home, read by candlelight,
    listen to the roof buttress against the relentless pelting.
    We’ll eat from the stockpiled tins of beans,
    boxes of shortbread, packets of cocoa with dried marshmallows,
    like eating shrine offerings, symbols of surrender, a type of devotion.

This collection begins with the poet in “Frantic” mode, as she and a young colleague pour cold coffee on a fire they set, and ends with a waitress filling a cup “held aloft, little white begging bowl” as a more mature Bombardier sits alone in the poem, “Breakfast at The Local Diner.” Even though the poet doesn’t “like to eat in the morning,” she eats now because the waitress offers solace. Like the waitress, Bombardier’s poems offer literary and emotional encouragement and nourishment, a solace while we wait for our “cup to be noticed and filled.”

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