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A Pennsylvania poet's debut collection explores earth and spirit, life and murder.

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Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods
By Paula Bohince
Sarabande Books, 77 pp., $14.95

 

The most appealing thing about Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods is how poet Paula Bohince combines an earthy, often harrowing rural setting with a spiritual impulse. The tension in this debut collection is between that impulse's dual nature as an empathy for the land and an intense desire for escape.

Bohince grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and still lives in the state. Her book describes the relationship between a girl (and, later a young woman) to the land and her father, both before and after his murder. The circumstances that led to his death are gradually revealed.

The opening poem, "Prayer," finds the narrator appealing to her "father in heaven" to "[a]dore me, Lord." Shifting into past tense with the second poem, "Landscape with Sheep and Deer," Bohince firmly establishes the collection's duality, with its mundane detail ("Each morning, I filled the feed drum") married to the suggestion of hallucination, or a landscape simply imagined ("I must have dreamt it").

Most hypnotically, "Landscape" begins the collection's exploration of a world where perhaps not even a membrane separates the human from the animal -- where sheep and deer are "jailed" and where, in later poems, metaphors variously implicit and blunt blur the lines between children and lambs; deer or birds and men; moths and old women. In "Black Lamb," the narrator ruminates upon an animal who "cannot hide, / cannot fade into the chalky path / as white sheep do"; Bohince follows with "Hide Out," in which the narrator lies "[s]tiff as a fish" in a barn to secretly watch her father aerate hay, haunted by "the sadness that waits for me / each evening / and cannot be extinguished." 

 The 42 poems are organized into three sections. The first part's evocation of a youthful (if often sorrowful) perspective gives way to the second's worldliness, physical danger and criminality, and the third's grasps for hope. Throughout, we're immersed in the hard lot of wives and daughters in a world of rough men.

Bohince's voice is usually the daughter's, with a few poems reserved for the farmhands who committed the murder to speak for themselves. It's often powerfully lyrical, able to summon beauty and cruelty at once. A poem about a robin in winter describes the bird as

 

... sentenced in red pajamas like a deposed king. This is the world's
revenge against masculine beauty: the bold color
it granted it withdraws, whole, in bold statement.
His eyes are black-rimmed, his fluted bones
could lift if they wanted.
But where, at this late hour? To what embassy?
He belongs to the void now, that prairie,
and is starving, I said.

 

In "Charity," Bohince excitedly speeds the rhythm as the narrator holds her dead father's .22: "the rib / where his sight fit, his sight / and barrel, hammer / and trigger -- mine now." A woman mending a torn nightgown finds comfort in "these stitches like footprints / unspoiled by a body." 

While Incident is seldom less than a pleasure to read, the book suffers at points from too little forward momentum. The chronological progression and thematic movement toward warily celebrated forms of rebirth help. But the overarching narrative keeps some poems from feeling quite complete in themselves. Yet if read all in one sitting, they can become a bit much, as if aspects of a dream were being replayed and reframed over and over.

Maybe Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods is best read each its three parts at a time. But in any case, Bohince makes a reading time well spent. 

 

Paula Bohince reads with Horacio Castellanos Moya 8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 9 Gist Street Reading Series. $5. 412-489-0404 or www.giststreet.org

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