What’s This, Bombardier? by Ryan Flaherty

by Roxanna Bennett
It’s almost impossible to believe that What’s This, Bombardier? is Ryan Flaherty’s debut collection.  Having previously published two chapbooks, Novas and Live, From the Delay, Flaherty is a winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize and the recipient of the 2010 PEN/New England Discovery Award for Poetry.

This is a technically flawless collection of work. Thematically linked poems revolve from the first page to the last and back, as in ‘Notes on the Prefix “un”’: “once I stepped into the river–/the water is moving at least two ways at once/and I am mostly vertigo standing still.”  The book opens with “All worlds begin with asking.” Question is the core of the collection, the existential hole of ‘why’ at the epicenter of a spare, elegantly constructed architecture of language.

The reader is expertly led from war: “Hiroshima at 580+/-20 m. Seven feet of earth and two of concrete burning in Dresden and having to come back to the surface with unbearable armfuls of “things”” to the connection of human anatomy to the earth: “rivervein, canyonrib,boilboil.” Birth, love, self-reflection are commonplace topics in poetry but treated here with a fresh and unflinching eye.  There is a self-awareness of the narrator’s complicity in his experience. In ‘Canticle Against Canticle’ Flaherty writes: “There is a certain shame necessary/in living well, something the flagellant/monk strapped in his cell knows best:/there is no escaping.”

The first quarter of the collection ‘Origins’ asks the questions, setting the loops in motion. The second chapter, ‘Adamine’ is love without softness, as in ‘Among Another’: “A. crimps a vein to feel for a ballooning/gives it a pluck and listens for anything/the dulled echo off the valves.” In the darkly comedic treatment of the topic Flaherty imbues it with an underscore of grief, gallows humor with a soundtrack.  Consider the rolling musicality of this passage from ‘With Adamine in Dubrovnik/Esteli:“Kolaci borovice is blueberry pastry/in Croatian and I am saying this out loud–/for what is better than kava, kolaci/borovice, a stack of blank postcards, and still feeling Adamine circling between my shoulder blades.”

The next section ‘Hypoxias’ (a word that means when the body as a whole does not have an adequate oxygen supply) is the most self-reflective.  The poem ‘Proof’ is a response to the many questions in ‘Origins,’ its solidity that contrasts with earlier pieces in the collection. “And the certainty: the body of ash inside/the body of fire inside the body of kindling/and what a spring acre will do to it.”

What’s This, Bombardier? builds from the unknowable and the idea that the end of an action is often its start.  The premise of loops begins from ‘Origins’ and continues throughout the book, in ‘Loops to Sequester the ‘Thing,’” “Loops of the Perforce,” “Loops Leading up to Birth,” “Loops of the Approach,” “Loops of the Goner,” and the final “Loops of the Annulled.”  Familiar words, concepts, wind their way through the book without boring the reader, all of them part of common human life: rivers, snow, blood, wind, sun, fields, dark.

In the final section ‘Departures’ the last two poems are titled ‘Adieu,’ and ‘Start,’ begging the reader to turn back to the first page and read through again. There is a richness of thought and language here, a masterful attention to the solitary human experience in relation to the larger world, and the loneliness of our place in that. “We are incidentologists” Flaherty writes of our brief connection to our own existence.

What’s This, Bombardier? is a sophisticated work that requires many readings to savor beauty in the bleakness.  Flaherty as our guide is like the engineer that leaves a single bloody fingerprint upon the heart.
Roxanna Bennett is an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2011, Roxanna Bennett