It's hard to believe it has been more than five years since I reviewed Tucson-based poet Simmons Buntin's wonderful debut collection, Riverfall.
A lot happened in the intervening years in Buntin's life. He embraced family life in a way few poets can manage—much less write about movingly—and his latest book, Bloom, published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry, uses the natural world as a metaphor for the tender bonds of domesticity, and vice versa.
This is environmental verse that avoids every cliché of the genre, choosing instead to carve a path that lies somewhere between the easy narrative grace of Billy Collins and the rich, organic imagery of Mary Oliver. Bloom brings into sharp relief the awakening of a man, husband and father as he realizes that he and his loved ones are but sweet, fleeting dreams. This realization makes his wife and daughters, and the plants and animals around him, even more precious.
Opening poem "Whether You Are Listening or You Are Reading" doesn't possess any real nature in it, yet it sets the tone. Buntin poetically renders the simple pleasure of reading at a table as his wife listens to the radio via earbuds, laughing at what she hears; meanwhile, their two little girls nap in another room. It's not a high-concept poem, sure, but Buntin wrings significant and eye-moistening meaning from the moment when the house is quiet except for the "burbling springs of laughter" and "the murmur of turning pages" while the kids are (finally) asleep. Anyone blessed with this kind of rare experience knows how blissful it is.
"Shower," meanwhile, offers a literal explosion of insect life in the Buntin home. After an afternoon spent collecting ladybugs from the garden, his daughter unleashes the entirety of her little "bug house" indoors, where the poet's attention had remained frozen in the pages of a book of Irish verse; the room is suddenly showered in "pure red/joy." The relationship between art and nature is always a lopsided affair in Buntin's view, since nature always triumphs, always succeeds in dragging us back to the hard insight that, while great books are often worth reading, a great life is definitely worth living.
That said, I am a fan of cynical, dark-minded (post-)Beatnik writers like Charles Bukowski and Denis Johnson, and there are instances when Buntin's writing seems too sentimental, at least to my taste. His relationship with nature, while deeply intellectual and profoundly spiritual, is rarely, if ever, physical. Halfway through the book, I longed to encounter a poem in which he actually hiked a trail or climbed a boulder (as his daughter does in "Arc") or did something other than gorgeously ponder the interrelated beauty of nature and family ("Desert Jazz") or the aesthetic beauty of his family in nature ("Bosque"). A few poems seem forced, too; for instance, a lyrical meditation on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima ("Drawing") seems better suited for another collection, and an odd William Carlos Williams tribute set thousands of miles away in SoHo doesn't have much in common with the exceptional, domestic-themed work that surrounds it.
Methinks the poet felt this distance somewhat, too, which perhaps explains why he ends Bloom with a long-form and very primeval poem. "Inflorescence" deftly weaves the horror and of his daughter's emergency surgery after having fallen through a plate-glass window with the cyclical death, then gradual, glacial bloom of the agaves in his backyard. Buntin expertly captures the emotional nuances of watching something wounded come alive again through compelling narrative language. First, the agave:
The agave hoards carbohydrates
in its succulent heart,
gathering sugar and starch
as the leaves spike, each tip thin as a whip
scorpion, black as the widow
in her gauzy web.
And then the daughter's eventful healing, itself cast in insect imagery:
After three weeks the surgeon cut away
my daughter's cast, exposing
her flesh and the black wound curving
across pale shin like a centipede—
each stitch a violet leg,
each segment a stain of dead skin
or angry scar.
Of course, nature and family aren't always as enduring as Buntin's poetry suggests, but they can be. Bloom is breathtaking and a great improvement upon the awesome, abstract word-stew of his previous book. It's a new and exciting collection.