Reviewed by Jessica Femiani
I Stop Waiting For You by Mary Jo Bona
Bordighera Press, New York, NY
It seems that people pretend that death is an event that we can move beyond. Culturally sanctioned rituals meant to provide sympathy, support, are a public display in which family and friends, gather and engage. Remembrances are timely anniversaries, ensconced in the muted sentimentality of Hallmark greeting cards. Mary Jo Bona’s poetry collection I Stop Waiting For You defies this cultural dance of avoidance, reminds that death of a beloved bleeds the heart.
This is Bona’s first published collection of poetry; she is also an accomplished Professor of English at SUNY Stony Brook, and has written several books of scholarship. Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers, rediscovers Italian American women novelists, whose novels are explorations of “otherness,” thereby critically enriching the discussion of American literature. Her most recent book-length publication, By the Breath of Their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America, hones the power of oral story-telling, and analyzes the liberating effects such traditions may have for Italian and multi-ethnic women writers.
It is hard to sum up a selection of poems so deeply embedded in the pain of love and loss. Bona is most powerful when she challenges death’s permanence. Bona knows that she will never be whole again, for she can never recover her twin brother that has died. Still, in the intensity of longing she conjures a semblance of his physicality, “I fall/ back on green moss, wet branches, stumble/ over a nurse log, feeding its children./ I feel your hand like mist, still,/ palpable, breathing” (12-13). Bona’s words enable time’s transcendence via her imaginings. She writes, “I remember you/ and this house is blessed/ with the silence/of your night stillness.” It is in this remembrance that Bona discerns the silence that is her brother’s absence, revealing that the impenetrable silence is in itself the presence of absence, a blessing to behold in its awareness, alone. For Bona, the loss of a beloved is a constant, “Ten years, dear-heart./ Ten years, beloved younger./ My pain is the family’s, deep-boned, boundless” (49). And in its inherent heaviness, Bona observes that, “This pain I feel for your death/ is an old friend”(43) and like old friends that are dependable, thus the pain of heartache is its strength, for the pain itself preserves memory, and the beloved is never to be forgotten.
In the same way that Bona challenges the canonical codes of American literature, she is equally invested in resisting the cultural silence that is the heartache of her heritage. While watching a silent film, Bona recognizes a “historical past [that is] in some way mine” (34). The “shame [that] covers them like an invisible shawl,/quieting their wounds,” (Ibid.) essentially forbidding speech is deeply problematic. For Bona knows that to honor her brother she must speak the truth. Bona’s poetry celebrates the brother’s person, not the disease that killed him. Thus, she advises inclusion and invites the appreciation of difference, “If we forgive the death in the dying/ of our loves, and we must, let us damn/the disease that savaged their vessels,” (5) then in turn, declarations of her brother’s beauty, his “city haunts/and wild desire” (6) are to be remembered with pride. For Bona, the act of remembrance is a double edged sword, for as much as it is encoded in pain, there is opportunity for reconciliation. Bona spreads out the once hidden photographs of herself and her brother, and is reminded that she and her fraternal twin share, “that smile, that smile:/it was your best-kept secret. Mine, too” (15).
This collection of poetry goes deep and it refuses to gloss over the reality that death is: a traumatic event. Bona’s collection has its place in on the bookshelves of all persons that are grieving the loss of a beloved, but also, perhaps should lean towards further explorations of healing and trauma studies through the process of writing. Simply, this is a poetry collection to savor, for the poems deserve to be read, and reread, over and over, for the repetition of words deepens the meaning, and soothes the soul.
Jessica Femiani is a poet living in upstate New York. She is a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at SUNY- Binghamton.
Mary Jo Bona is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University. Her forthcoming book, Women Writing Cloth: Migratory Fictions in the American Imaginary, examines migratory women through the transnational trope of needlework. She has also authored By the Breath of Their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America, and Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers.