Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review by Joy Leftow: The Weight of Wings by April Bulmer

Book Review: The Weight of Wings by April Bulmer
Reviewed by Joy Leftow

I first saw April Bulmer’s poem, “Mai Po,” on another poet’s website while browsing online looking through websites of other writers who had other commented on my work or glanced through my blog. The poem, “Mai Po,” touched me and brought together universal qualities of longing, sadness, the passing of time and personal search. I immediately googled April Bulmer, located her and told her I wanted to review her book, The Weight of Wings.  Ms. Bulmer kindly forwarded a copy of this small but packed-with-valuables collection to editor Brad Eubanks and myself since he too was enthralled with her writing. The Weight of Wings is a mixture between a novel and a spiritual journey, written in poetic verse. First I read the book to myself, stopping and browsing along the journey. I paused to engage with the spiritual theme and read the small-but mighty book through to its end. To absorb more of the work and to examine how it sounded when read aloud I read it to a poetry co-conspirator. After reading several pages, I asked if he was bored. “No,” he said, he appreciated my reading and would I continue. Thus I completed my second reading.

Later I sat and examined the fine papyrus paper purposely frayed and roughened at the edges of this sixty-page manuscript, running my fingers across it. The feel and look of the paper made it feel sacred. I opened the book. I measured it as though its measurements would reveal its meaning. The frayed cover measured 5 ¼ x 5 ¾ inches and the pages within were 5 x 5 inches. It was typeset with Cochin, “a font named for a family of 17th and 18th century Parisian engravers.” [1] This made me feel the weight of time while experiencing a journey of verse.

Lulled into the rhythm and pace of the words I discovered a range of characters. I decided to list and outline each character to define where they fit in the text.  Next, I realized there are over twenty characters and some reappear. The voices follow themselves or a member of their community.

It was there I stopped counting. I began concentrating on the threads that run through the prose. What connects all the characters is a personal relationship to their savior, “Most blessed of Women is Rosie, earthen vessel in whom Jesus now grows.”[2] Each character struggles to maintain their faith and purity while simultaneously trying to survive in a sometimes harsh, unforgiving environment where loss, pain and loneliness intertwine with passions and desires. They are either residents of a convent or live in a nearby religious center. Thus they are connected through their faith as well as their losses.

The first poem throws us right into the battle.

Mr. F. Johnson

I laid down by the little plot, my heart tethered to the stone.
And God fell upon me like a warm blanket, though I still
shivered in the cold.

I prayed early that evening. God my horsepower. For Him my
faith cantered, unreined. But your death, daughter, was a saddle
a dark weight; your body folded untidy as a map in the rumble
of the black coupe. Heart a compass, the needle spinning dizzy
till it stiffened north.

It is noteworthy that much of Bulmer’s poetry appears in theological reviews such as The Anglican Theological Review, as well as in feminist publications and anthologies. Some of her other works are, Spring Rain, Oh My Goddess, Holy Land, The Goddess Psalms, and A Salve for Every Sore, all published by the well-known Serengeti Press. Bulmer utilizes simple language that becomes complex and has layers of meanings hauntingly presented.

In an email Bulmer explains, “The mention of ‘bruised bone’ and ‘oracle’ in ‘Mai Po’ are references to ancient Chinese divination practice. These early people heated bones and tortoise shells to read the cracks and lines that appeared.” Bulmer visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto years ago and toured an exhibit of these inspiring spiritual relics.

Bulmer’s works encompass every man’s struggle between good and evil; she brings us back to basics. In a world where every bad deed is counted and dividends for rewards run steep, stakes are high. Brimstone and fire tactics often help the populace behave and survive. Putting your best foot forward is what’s expected although humanity has always struggled with issues such as greed or lust. These desires coincide with our desire to be good and do right.

Bulmer brings profound new meaning to our inner struggles and brings to light the uncertainty that the only reward we receive in this life is the confirmation that if we are good enough, we will enter the kingdom of God after death. Sometimes reaching for the light at the end of the tunnel seems useless when suffering and loss are all we know. Here may be the point. All of Bulmer’s works dance with the desire for the universal search for truth and righteousness while trying to survive the day in a human body with desires and needs. It gives the word guilt more power.

As I spread my wings though the poems, I was carried through a dream-like sequence of events, mixing eroticism and religion with hints of sexual behavior. In addition the characters always attempt to make sense of themselves and their struggles in a way they can understand.
I thought God so loved the Virgin, he himself stepped out of his
  work pants, hung his belt on a nail. I wedded him in a bridal gown…

But God so loved me he sent Diamond. …

I trip on my way to chapel …  The thorns
break my skin, my ankles and calves bleed. Diamond takes me
to his shed where he stores his tools and bags of loam, lays me
down on a burlap sack: a leak in the roof,  a hymn gentle from
the chapel….A hot drink, eggs scrambled
over fire, crusty bread Diamond hacks from a loaf. When the
cinders die, shadows sweep the ashes.

When I got to “Annie,” I wondered if I was misunderstanding. I worried so that I finally wrote Bulmer and asked her if I was on point, raising several issues.

My new dog liked the smell of my yellow soap, thanked me
with kisses to the elbow, wrist and knee. He growled a little
when I clipped his nails and when I snipped at his dewclaw
he broke the skin on my left thigh. I bled.

He didn’t like it among the brooms and buckets, whined for hours.
He was asleep on the rag bag when I opened the door. I carried
him to the bedroom, his body warm against the sleeves of my
cotton night dress. We slept cheek by jowl.

At noon he stood at the window like a little man, wiped the dew
from the window pane and cried. It was the sheriff and a vigil of
town folk at the front door. They kicked at me with their hob-nailed
boots, struck me with shovels and frying pans. The sheriff shot my
dog--a weight he slung into a burlap bag and carried to the river.

Sunday, and no heaving and crying at church. All cheeks were dry.
But as the choir rose, I heard a high-pitched howl, a soulful baying
that swelled my heart to a full moon.

“Did they really kill the dog and beat the woman because the two had sex and they had to be punished?” I wrote her. Bulmer replied, “My fantasy worlds are a little bit eccentric (as you gathered in reading about the woman who slept with her dog). I have a low-key life. I don’t think anyone would be interested in reading about it. You highlighted the major themes of the book.  Thank you for your keen reading.”

And my heart swelled to meet the moon and I too heard the cries of a dog dying for doing the forbidden when obviously a dog wouldn’t know better. I wondered too at the charity of letting Annie live. I figure they released her so she might repent her sins. I wondered how the townspeople knew what she and the dog had done.

I recommend all of Bulmer’s work heartily. It is not for the feint of heart--neither is it for prudes. I love the lilt of Bulmer’s words and how they continue to sing in my head, resonating long after the reading is done.

April Bulmer was born and raised in Toronto, but now lives in the small city of Cambridge, Ontario.  She has published six books of poetry.  Many of her poems deal with women and spirituality.  She holds three Masters Degrees in Creative Writing, Religious Studies and Theological Studies.  The prose poems that appear here are excerpts from her second book The Weight of Wings (Trout Lily Press, Stratford, 1997).  Each piece in the collection deals with the spiritual life of a character in fictional Sweet Grass, Saskatchewan.  April's newest manuscript is entitled "Women of the Cloth."  To contact her and order books: 

Article first published as Book Review: The Weight of Wings by April Bulmer on Blogcritics.

[1] Final page, text
[2] Mrs. Gross, page 11