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Of Love and Revelation

Guest Post by Michael Hettich.

Denusha Laméris’s Bonfire Opera, a book of surprising, deeply moving personal lyrics, is a stellar example of what’s best in contemporary mainstream American poetry. Published in the ever-more-impressive and various Pitt Poetry Series, the poems in this book are masterfully crafted, emotionally challenging, and accessible—capable of speaking powerfully to both poets and general readers alike. While her poems break no new ground, the news Laméris brings us is intimate, timely, and often profoundly revelatory.

Bonfire Opera is built mostly of short autobiographical lyrics in uncluttered, nicely-modulated free verse; their revelations arise from the most ordinary of human experiences, often without any strain or histrionics:

It was late afternoon and we were standing
on the deck overlooking the grey swath
of the Pacific, when my friends’ daughter,
then four, turned to me and pointed at the hawks
flying in the distance. I can call them if I want,
she said, tilting back her head to let out a long,
fierce caw which floated up over the marsh
and above the trees. At first, nothing. Then—
a slash in the distance . . .

This is poetry whose expert craft calls little attention to itself. And when Laméris delves into the almost unspeakable personal tragedies that have darkened her life, her self-effacing, understated art deepens our response:

No one wants to talk about the hilarity after death—
the way the week my brother shot himself,
his wife and I fell on the bed laughing
because she couldn’t decide what to wear for the big day,
and asked me, “Do I go for sexy or Amish?” I told her sexy.
And we rolled around on the mattress they’d shared
for eighteen years, clutching our sides…
(“Dressing for the Burial”)

Laméris is an expert in humor—not necessarily the kind that elicits laughter but instead that deeper species born of confusion and loss mixed with amazement at the world and the complexities of our human predicament. Her humor communicates a fully-earned consolation in the face of pain and suffering, a way of clearing a path for the soul’s journey forward. It is humor, certainly, but it’s more than simply that:

In those days, there was a woman in our circle
who was known, not only for her beauty,
but also for taking off all her clothes and singing opera.
And sure enough, as the night wore on and the stars
emerged to stare at their reflection in the sea,
and everyone had drunk a little wine,
she began to disrobe, lose her great bosom
and the tender belly, pale in the moonlight,
the Viking hips, and to let her torn raiment
fall to the sand as we looked up from the flames . . .
(“Bonfire Opera)

This is a book that matters, full of poems that give pleasure and move us, poems of authentic need and craft. Finally, despite the profundity of grief at its core, Bonfire Opera is a book of affirmation: This poetry reminds us that life aches with beauty; each day is potent with small miracles if we open our eyes and hearts to them. The best poems here are vehicles to that opening:

I lie on the ground and let the sun fall across my back,
as I’ve been doing for the past hour, listening to the distant traffic,
to the call of birds I cannot name. Once, there was so much
I thought I needed. Now, all I know is that I want
to get closer to it: the rocky slope, the orange petals
of the nasturtium adorning the fence, the wind’s sudden breath.
Close enough that I can almost feel, at night, the slight pressure
of the stars against my skin . . .

Truly words to live by in these troubled, disjointed times.

Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris. University of Pittsburgh Press, April 2020.

Reviewer bio: Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poems, To Start an Orchard, was published in 2019. A new book, The Mica Mine, is forthcoming in early 2021.

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