Review by Mindy Kronenberg
What is it about the pressures of forgiveness that plagues and propels us? We live our lives in pursuit of knowledge, happiness, and love, and despite any accolades and earnest gestures toward fortifying our own humanity we manage to be detoured by the regret of our lesser moments and the challenges of our mortality. Chelsea Bunn hits several sensitive and familiar nerves with this eighteen poem collection that reveals and revisits the hope and grief that is threaded through rite-of-passage episodes. These involve missed opportunities, loss, violations (natural and self-inflicted) of the body and morale, and the hazards of creating distances of our own volition.
Both physical and emotional distances are topographies that often magnify and sustain the grief of guilt, and anxiety of uncertainty, expressed in simple yet eloquent language as in “Desert Impasse” (p. 29):
dry clean and brittle
in January’s winds.
Two thousand miles away
my father died.
What I’d hoped
may not be true:
that here, all grief
collapses like a star,
its matter ejected into space.
That here, all sins
are turned to dust.
The fear of personal failure haunts like the echo of coyote voices in “The Beau Geste Effect,” (p. 6) an auditory illusion that multiplies into a Greek chorus on the periphery of the landscape. Printed in a tight, justified two-stanza column (as it appears in the book), the poet admits that these imagined “scattered voices” surround her, and that she fears
…they want to
drag me through the dark
paths behind the houses
Why did you leave your
life, they howl. Idiot. You
won’t find a job, or
friends, and we watch the
smoke pour from your
chimney every night,
laughing at your
Another poem which uses a visual strategy in its unraveling of disturbing recollections is “Litany,” (p. 2) which makes it way to the exultation of survival as it moves from “Survived the father’s hand across/ the kitchen table that sudden sting/ hand of passing man/Canal Street/ snaking up my skirt/ open hand of young boy/crowded/ corner/Mexico twenty-three/older/man dragging leathered hands across/ my lifeless form…” and to:
the door that delivered me into
that night and praise the body
its resilience and praise the body
its resolve and praise the body
its tender grief …
In addition to capturing heightened moments with this type of dramatic musicality (and fragmented vignettes), Bunn articulates confessions and personal crises that arise in the private realm of therapy sessions that recall the urgent narratives and raw energy of Anne Sexton (particularly “Music Swims Back to Me”) and Sharon Olds (poems in The Father). We have “Forgiveness,” (p.18) the one-on-one therapy scenario where her counselor wants “to get me to forgive/myself. She wants to free me/ of the song// I play over and over in my mind, which governs/ every part of me: nerves// veins, fingers, ego.” In “The Meeting,” the poet uses the phrase “but let me back up again” as a refrain to keep track of the issues and reasons that brought her to a therapy group to deal with her demons and the stages of her self-destruction. The process is a painful one, honestly hewn and vividly portrayed:
…and so I tried to tell the room
full of strangers what happened
but my voice kept cracking and
I felt my legs trembling in the metal chair
and I kept smashing my hands together
and then three women
surrounded me to stuff tissues in my palm
and give me their advice…
Chelsea Bunn’s journey toward healing and redemption is bravely and eloquently rendered. The poems in Forgiveness remind us that the very attributes that make us human— our vulnerability, our ability to suffer, our desire to love and be loved—give us the drive and determination to heal.
Poems by Chelsea Bunn
Finishing Line Press, 2019
Mindy Kronenberg is an award-winning poet and writer with numerous publication credits world-wide. She teaches writing, literature, and arts subjects at SUNY Empire State College, publishes Book/Mark Quarterly Review, is editor of Oberon poetry magazine, and the author of Dismantling the Playground (Birnham Wood), Images of America: Miller Place (Arcadia), and OPEN, an illustrated poetry book (Clare Songbirds Publishers).