Andrew S. Nicholson
Review of Bruce Bond's For the Lost Cathedral
(LSU Press, 2015)
In For the Lost Cathedral, Bruce Bond attends to the effects of politics, to the war and violence birthed from politics, looking again at the horrors of the twentieth–century and today. Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that the poet anticipates. Shelley’s Defense of Poetry describes the poet as a writer who, by observing the world, anticipates how culture will move and becomes a part of the imaginative force that pushes nations forward. Chance, synchronicity, sensitivity—the particular flavor of anticipation matters less than how the poem lives not only in the moment of composition but in the cultural life in which the poem continues to dwell.
We find ourselves in a political moment of uncertainty. We find ourselves in a dark time. In this new political climate, Bond’s recently published For the Lost Cathedral anticipates its own relevance. We stand on a precipice as the poet looks back at the twentieth century’s history, sifting the void for glimmers.
Bond focuses especially on the aftermath of violence, destruction that has torn away the obvious landmarks of value. In poems like “Cross of Nails,” hope is found in ruin:
The morning after the blitzkrieg that toppled the vaults
of Saint Michael’s Cathedral and set the rest on fire,
a stonemason found among the embers one roof
beam laid across another, a kind of crucifix
created by the forces of accident and violence
and then by grace of eyes that saw in them an order. (8)
Hope is linked to the spiritual, but with civilization leveled, with its monuments to the spiritual razed, signs of hope are not clearly signs sent by a god. It is not another being that orders the sign of hope. Grace, in “Cross of Nails,” comes from the human eye.
Looking for divinity in the site of ruin, looking for divinity and finding no clear sign of a divine being, Bond recalls Celan’s prayers for an absent God. Bond, too, writes a form of spiritual negativity where not only is a god beyond knowing but the ground on which divinity can be found is bombed, cratered, torn apart:
Our godless god, our one
no one, our all things small,
our no thing in particular
our wind in the belfry
bronzed with fading praise,
remember, when my candles
offered up their shadows,
you were no god to me. (12)
Here in “Via Negativa,” divinity appears in imperceptible and paradoxical traces. Divinity does not appear as the vibrating air of ringing bells but as wind soundlessly moving through a church belfry. Divinity is called to by lighting a votive candle. The only reply is shadows thrown by the flame’s light.
The trace, the resonance, the crater that marks an absent presence that once carved the cavity or into which it will come—these images are where Bond’s poems turn, faced with the world’s violence. The casting of church bells in “The Raising of the Bells” is emblematic of this movement: “Not only were the largest of the church bells cast/ in pits, there, beneath the thrusting of the tower, / at times the earthly founding of a bell came first” (58). The instrument of resonance comes before the habitable building. The bell is cast where divine architecture will arise. In a book that keeps its reader conscious of bombing, the construction of a building only anticipates its destruction. But in this image of bells being cast, spiritual resonance comes before human construction, and spiritual resonance is infused with earth, beyond the reach of war, present even in the carved–out space.
Bond follows spirituality and violence to look at humans engaging in sacrifice and self–renunciation. Some poems accept an ascetic valuing of renunciation. “The Desert Fathers” begins with an aestheticized wandering into the desert:
And so when he wandered into the sea
of heat, he gave himself to the mercy
of the waves, the thorns of the dry field,
the clay, the desert bees, the ache that peeled
the tiny twisted flowers drenched in sun,
the water that he walked the reflection
of a power too bright to see, a flood
to glut the blackened rivers of his blood. (50)
The desert mystic renounces the human world in hope of finding the spiritual among nature. In “The Desert Fathers,” the mystic is given the experience he seeks. Self–renunciation in the poem is an act that successfully brings him to the divine: “He became a speck in the larger mind, / in the drowned face that surfaced with the wind” (50). In other poems, the violence of sacrifice is certain but sacrifice does not bring divine presence but a greater emptiness:
Just this morning a man exploded
his body for God, and I saw
in pictures of the blaze something
of the nothingness he died to fill. (60)
The violence of sacrifice is always true violence in For the Lost Cathedral. It is brutal, terrifying, and grounded in the cruelty of war. Bond moves from catastrophe to catastrophe, rarely giving name to the wars about which the poems turn, sometimes not even giving name to the places of violence. Human life feels all the more lived in the shadow of destruction as conflicts merge into one, and a bombing in the past becomes a contemporary bombing. Hope is won, but it is hard won. Divinity is allowed, but it may only be allowed as absence. Lives are lost in the world, but there is still life, there is still a world in which life is lived. For the Lost Cathedral is not unusual for looking at cruelty and destruction so intently; what distinguishes it is that in poem after poem we are vividly recalled to the fact that what has been destroyed was once given to flourish.
Andrew S. Nicholson is the author of A Lamp Brighter than Foxfire (Center for Literary Publishing 2016). His poetry has appeared in magazines and journals including Colorado Review, Bitter Oleander, Eleven Eleven, and Witness and was included in New Poetry from the Midwest 2014. He is an Assistant Professor-in-Residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vega, an wa previously an Artist-in-Residence at the Palazzo Rinaldi in aples, Italy.
More from Vol. 34, Issue 1
MC Hyland and Becca Klaver
Tomas Tranströmer, trans. Kelly Nelson
Andrew S. Nicholson
Francisco Urondo, trans. Julia Leverone
Anja Utler, trans. Dani DiCenzo