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Ice Mountain by Dave Bonta

From blog to print: a review of Ice Mountain – an Elegy, by Dave Bonta
Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal

Ice Mountain002 

When a three-legged dog chases its tail, the stakes are higher, somehow. These poems are like that: trios of unrhymed tercets that strain toward the phantom limb of a resolution but never quite reach it. I call this form 3verse. It takes its cue from the web comic 3eanuts, which consists of old Peanuts strips from which the fourth panel has been amputated. The result is something perhaps sadder but also freer, more open-ended, succeeding in ways the original strips could not.

This is how, in January 2014, Dave Bonta introduced a new series of poems on his blog Via Negativa. I had been following him for a couple of years, and the arrival of each new post was a daily pleasure. It is still.

That sequence had the working title Toward Noon. Each poem was the result of a mid- to late-morning walk on the Appalachian mountain where the poet has spent most of his life. Having looked after an elderly dog for the first half of January, he wondered about the difference between his experience of their morning walks and the dog’s. “How well did I really know this mountain?” he asks in the foreword. Two days after the dog was collected by her owners he started walking alone, slowly and with attention, and writing this four-month poetic journal. The change of title to Ice Mountain – an Elegy reflects the poet’s response to the desecration in 2013 of a nearby mountain by a large-scale wind plant. Locals resisted for six years this development which threatened migrating birds and bats as well as resident rare species such as the timber rattlesnake and the Alleghenny woodrat.

                    pinned down with turbines
like a felled mammoth
the spears still quivering
                                     (26 January)

                    what won’t we sacrifice
to keep the weather just right
inside our homes                                    
           (4 March)

                    we can’t walk there now
someone might get hurt
they say                                                              
(9 April)


On the blog the daily poems had titles. In the book, they are identified only with a date. Some revision has taken place. This tercet, for example,

Even the snowy hillside,
the way it bends the trees’
harp-string shadows…                                       
(31 January)

has been tightened, and then expanded to include one of the most significant lines in the whole sequence

trees’ skinny shadows
bending with the contours of the snow
what else have I failed to notice
                         (31 January)

and at least one treasure has been discarded – perhaps a casualty of the punctuation-purge. Inessential punctuation and capitals have been removed, leaving the poems uncluttered, clean as fresh snow

 in a snow-bound ring of stones
I am burning all the tissues
from my cold

the sun beats down
fallen twigs are melting themselves
into form-fitting graves

a flat wing of ash
floats up
and hangs in the air
                                            (23 February)

The woods contain surprises: in a ruined house are typewriters full of dead beetles; a mourning-cloak butterfly becomes a two-page spread of darkness; dried grass is curled/tight as pubic hair; a distant gleam turns out to be an antique beer bottle.

These poems are rich with close observation

…  just one phone-line
for all the caravans of the internet
its wavy shadow
                                                 (23 January)

having melted
the snow above it
a black stone glistens in its pit
                           (19 February)

on a warm day
a patch of ice dulls over
like a dead eye
                                                   (14 March)

the snow sticks to our boot-soles
lifting like lids
from jars of earth
                                             (30 March)

the beech tree has seven eyes
where limbs used to be
each of them gazing upward
                             (6 May)

with a wealth of lightly-worn scientific knowledge

insects have mastered
the most immaculate lifelessness
deader than any corpse

cells … flooded with glycerine                             (20 February)

and glimpses of a rural childhood

I grew up with a woodstove
instead of television
I know all the theme songs of oak
                       (4 February)

There is a fertile imagination at play

the sun comes out
in the middle of a shower
too high for a rainbow

unless you imagine
the bird’s-eye view
rainbow against the ground

and off to the side in avian vision
the radiant shimmer
of this magnet Earth
                                           (22 April, Earth day*)

and often a sense of awe

I enter the grove
careful as a bridegroom
at each raised threshold of root
                          (20 March)

or a moment of erotic sensibility.

flat against the ground
the trailing arbutus’s
fragrant parts ease open
                                     (23 April)

Dave Bonta has, it seems, an instinct for getting to the heart of things without fuss, for choosing words and creating metaphors that are just right, never showy, and for making a point subtly, without jargon. This collection shows him to be a nature-poet in the great American tradition. Even a brief wander through his places on the Internet will confirm that he’s more than that.

This is Bonta’s first full-length collection, after a number of beautifully-produced chap-books of admirable poetry. The book itself is a pleasing object, with a lino-cut by Elizabeth Adams on the front cover and at the beginning of each month/chapter. Each poem has plenty of space around it, a fine pattern of Garamond footprints on a wide expanse of snow.


*”Birds Can ‘See’ Earth’s Magnetic field”, National Geographic News, Sept 27, 2007.

Some videopoems from Ice Mountain can be seen here.

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