Household Gods by Bonnie Proudfoot. Russell, KY: Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2022. Poetry chapbook. $14.00.
Bonnie Proudfoot’s first poetry collection, Household Gods, is firmly grounded in Queens, New York, held fast in the arms of family, steered by the passage of time. It offers a constant push against the roles handed to women even as women are remembered, honored, and elegized. I was struck by the numerous threads of how women are often discounted, pushed to conform, stripped of their innocence, and denied help, how women who push against their assigned role are disappointed or worse.
While the title poem, Household Gods, deals with the fierce tenacity of a grandmother and the inheritance she left, it was the poem, Elegy for Kitty Genovese, that really struck me as the heart of this book. The first segment, Scar, begins with, “If my old neighborhood is my body….”, fixing this poet’s connection to Queens. Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed and raped on her way home from her job as a bartender in the Kew Gardens area of Queens near where Proudfoot grew up, represents every woman who ever tried to be what she wanted rather than what society said she should be. Her demise was far more grisly than most, but the implications of the story as it unfolds in this poem are clear: the world is a dangerous place for women who stop pretending to fit in and no one is going to be of much help, so just believe what you are told. Love offered is part of a woman’s protection. Anyone who doesn’t love you doesn’t care what happens to you.
The Kitty Genovese murder happened in 1964, but the lessons remain. Time has not softened the world for women; it has only become more polarized. This is hinted at in the end of the opening poem, El Tiempo: “….The past // is gaining ground, it’s snapping at her stamping heels. We / clap faster and faster, hold tight to each other when she bows.” We see the narrator’s innocence torn from her in the poem, Changeling, when a man on the bus, “waited one step between you / and the exit door, thrust / his finger up your plaid skirt / hard enough to make your stomach // ache, and you did not have the words / to describe that, but you had / to be stupid and powerless / to let that happen. You lost // a bit of wonder every day.” How many women experienced a similar incident in their adolescence? I know I did.
Loss, anger, and grief are all represented over time. Later, in, Throwing Like a Girl, the narrator longs for things to be different: “…now all roads lead to / humiliation, the kind of shame that arcs / back and forth between you and your / body. It cools you down, gets / in the way. You want to be nimble, / you want to mean business…” She goes on to vow that she will, “figure out / how to get your own self / back into the game.” There is a counterweight to loss, anger and grief: determination.
Ms. Proudfoot is not just determined for the narrator in these poems. She is determined for anyone who becomes the target of anger or is discounted, like the little brother who, “never quite seemed to fit, as if a smack / could slap somebody straight…” in the poem, Once, and the same brother who wanted to fix everything in the poem, Silt and Mystery. She is determined for those who were unjustly killed, like Martin Luther King, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and Breonna Taylor who all show up alongside Holocaust survivors in the poem, How many pages of photographs.
All this grief, all this determination, eventually calls into question whether forgiveness ever happens. What are we to do in the face of rage? Injustice? Unfairness? Do our family ties, inheritance from our grandmothers who never gave up, show us the way? We must eventually consider what we each bring to the table, as in the poem, Sweet Forgiveness: “….None of this food, like sweet forgiveness itself, / could ever be bought, it had to be touched / by the hands of those who cared for us, served when it / was most needed, waited for, earned.” Sometimes what we need is right there in front of us – our daily sustenance. We are called to share it with one another.
I wanted to know more about the person behind these poems, so I sent Ms. Proudfoot a few questions. She said she doesn’t always know where her poems come from or what sends her toward any one subject, but she was game to answer my questions anyway. Here they are as answered.
What would you like people who come to your poems to know about you and what would you like them to take away from your work?
I did not set out to write this book, but after I turned 60, I know my gaze began to turn inward as a way to figure out more about what shaped me, and these recent poems seemed to be most energized when I was able to connect to the earlier years of my life, the years that I had turned my back on as I ventured out into the world. At some point, I had a manuscript of linked poems about coming of age in the 1960’s, and that taught me that what I had thought I turned away from was always going to be a part of me.
You had a lifetime as a glass artist before your chapbook was published. How do you see your work as an artist informing your work as a poet? Are there similarities in the way you layer each piece of artwork and the way you layer each poem?
Such a great question!
Although glass reflects my thoughts abstractly about balance, light, color, mood, poetry is another type of communication altogether, so deeply personal, so connected to thinking and living. There is no screen between my inner life and the world in my poems, as there can be with glasswork. I do think my love of narrative will sometimes come through in glass and in poetry.
When did you first begin to write poetry? What was it that drew you to it as an art form?
I began to write poetry in high school, gravitated toward it in college, but something held me back for a while; I felt like I had more living to do, and more writing to do. I wrote a novel in linked short stories, and then began to write poetry with a kind of passion. It took me a long time before I could figure out how to write a poem that I wanted to read, and how to allow language to take me somewhere unexpected.
Do you have any future poetry collections in the works?
I am working on poems all the time, but I feel like it might take me a while before I see how they link or at least rub shoulders with each other. I do know that the themes that I explored in Household Gods are not quite done with me yet.
Do you have a favorite poem from your chapbook?
I like “Superpowers”, also “Mimosa”, and “Broken Moon.”
If you’re interested (and I hope you are) in getting your own copy of Bonnie Proudfoot’s chapbook, you can order one at https://sheilanagigblog.com/sheila-na-gig-editions-quick-shopping/bonnie-proudfoot/. In addition, you can find out more about her writing and glass artistry at her blog, https://bonnieproudfootblog.wordpress.com.
Thank you to Bonnie Proudfoot for engaging in this conversation about her work. It is always an honor to read another poet’s collection, especially when it resonates so broadly and deeply.
Photos courtesy of Bonnie Proudfoot.