Thursday, July 11, 2013

High praise: Bruce Bond's Choir of the Wells & Jesse Lee Kercheval's Brazil

This summer, I’ve had the good fortune of time to make progress on my stack of unread books. Two have emerged as favorites: Choir of the Wells (Etruscan Press 2013) by Bruce Bond and Brazil (Cleveland State University 2010) by Jesse Lee Kercheval.

Choir of the Wells is Bruce Bond’s ninth book of poetry, a substantial, engaging collection. The ideas in the poems are difficult, but not the poetry itself; that is, the poems are wise, wry or cry out; they don’t avoid the hard thoughts of the human mind. The language, although beautiful and well wrought, is not hard to follow. Readers new to poetry or experienced will respond to this work.

Bond lives and teaches at the University of North Texas. Although there is some texture of place, an avocado tree, most poems are untethered from their earthly setting. The universals are experience: art, illness, memory, culture, loss, love.

One of my favorite poems, “Pledge,” asks “What did we mean, hand over heart” by this schoolhouse ritual?

“And to the country for witches stand,
I said, anything to please…”

Later he notes that the God we are under seemed distant,

“…like the dad I mistook in the market
for mine, the one who turned to look down,

surprised, with a smile that scared me
speechless, my hand a stranger fastened to his coat.”

Bond’s control of the line and linebreak is so accomplished, the poems so deeply thought and felt, it is a pleasure to enter into them.

I heard Jesse Lee Kercheval read from Brazil when she visited Cleveland State after her novella was selected by Josip Novakovich for Cleveland State Press. I was taken with the reading, and I remember an interesting discussion during the Q&A about writers who have left their native place and are writing as outsiders. Like Bond, Kercheval is well published, with eleven previous books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

Brazil follows two characters, a young man in Miami who is mistaken for Cuban, and a beautiful, middle-aged Hungarian refugee named Claudia, on a cross-country trip. Their journey is fast and surprising, and kept me breathless. I read the whole book in one sitting. It is exactly the right length, perfectly paced, with an element of danger that antes up what’s at stake without turning sordid.

The narrator, Paolo, doesn’t have anything to lose when he agrees to this epic trip. His father, Brazilian, is long gone, his mother lives in another city, and he is still stung from losing the love of his life during his first semester at college. American culture is a puzzle, apparently, illustrated by a freshman essay assignment to write about his family at Thanksgiving. Panicked, he modeled his essay on an episode of the Brady Bunch.

“The teacher read a paper from one of the sorority girls out loud first, and I remember being pleased at how much her Thanksgiving was like mine – turkey, cranberries, the family gathered over inherited china and silver, Dad carving the bird right at the head of the table. Then the teacher read my paper. More turkey, more Dad, except –I guess because I was thinking of Christmas morning with the Brady family– everyone in my family was wearing pajamas at the dinner table. Brand new ones with the folds still in them.

The teacher commented on it. ‘America,’ he’d said, ‘so much diversity!’”

This picaresque isn’t a laugh riot, but the humor is true and well placed, and makes the characters more endearing.

You can judge these two books by their gorgeous covers, but don't stop there. Dive in.

What have you read this summer, and loved?

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