Review of Ice Mountain, by Dave Bonta


Ice Mountain, An Elegy, by Dave Bonta

Phoenicia Publishing, 2017

Illustrations by Elizabeth Adams

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk

During the dog days of summer, you might enjoy a bracing romp through snowy woods in Ice Mountain, by Dave Bonta. We’re talking real ice here, and a real mountain range, not bottled water. Despite the pretty picture on its label, Ice Mountain bottled water does not come from Ice Mountain. Instead, please enjoy the pretty illustrations in Ice Mountain, from original linocuts by Elizabeth Adams.

As Bonta tells us in the Foreword, Ice Mountain actually began with a dog. A dog named Canela that Bonta was tending for friends. Canela is

an aging, half-blind Chesapeake Bay retriever…, a sweet-tempered animal with her breed’s typical winter-hardiness and extreme enthusiasm for, well, retrieving. We were outside by mid- to late-morning most days for a high-velocity exploration of the mountain where I’ve lived for the past 45 years, miles of urgent sniffing and listening punctuated by occasional, regrettable episodes of coprophagy. When we got back, Canela would flop down on her Dora the Explorer blanket and fall fast asleep, rumbling like an appliance with a bad motor.

He missed his daily walks with Canela and started up again without her, noting the geography, weather, wildlife, and geology with a keen and perhaps now doglike interest, leading to a series of short poems, dated as in a diary or field notebook, from January to May. Here’s an example from January:

     27 January

     in the oak’s crown
     the sound of porcupine teeth
     a dry scraping

     ahead of me on the path
     the tracks of three deer
     braid and unbraid

     something scratches my chest
     I reach into my coat and pull out
     a claw-shaped twig

The afore-mentioned Foreword sets us up beautifully for these shared poetic romps and gives some necessary context. Ice Mountain is part of the Allegheny Front, a section of the Appalachians, and visible to Bonta from his home mountain, Brush Mountain, in Pennsylvania. Ice Mountain is considered a “huge natural refrigerator” (as it says on a historical marker in West Virginia) and provides a migratory corridor for birds and bats, part of the great historical and ecological importance of the area. Sadly, it became the home of a wind farm dangerous to those bats and birds, including the golden eagle. Bonta and others who fought the wind plant acknowledge that coal mining and fracking do great harm to the environment, and well-sited wind farms may be good choices elsewhere. But Bonta sees this as a “poorly sited wind installation,” since it lacks the “high-quality wind resources” of other sites, thus doing more harm than good. (We have abundant wind farms here in central Illinois, for example, on the windy prairie.)

The poem from March 4 sums up the issue exactly:

     Ice Mountain’s propellers
     spin at different speeds
     face this way and that

     you can’t hear them from here
     their low-frequency moans
     like lost whales

     what won’t we sacrifice
     to keep the weather just right
     inside our homes

All the poems are short, three stanzas each, modeled, Bonta explains, on “the web comic 3eanuts, which consists of old Peanuts cartoons stripped of the fourth, concluding panel, making them darker in tone but also more lyrical and open-ended.” The darkness of the poems reflects the loss of Ice Mountain and the damage to flora and fauna affected by various clear-cuts, human intrusions, and industrializations over time. The full title of the book, after all, is Ice Mountain, An Elegy.

An elegy has capacious room for memory, and memory braids through the book like the deer tracks in the 27 January poem above. In February, the poet remembers playing Fox and Hounds with his brothers in the snow. He revisits high school in a dream, “still an outcast,” and gives an excellent short autobiography in a stanza:

     I grew up with a woodstove
     instead of a television
     I know all the theme songs of oak

I love that stanza and also this sentence from his actual About the Author bio at the back of the book: “Dave lives on a mountaintop in central Pennsylvania as well as on the internet.” Even though he grew up without a television, he is one of the most internet savvy poets I’ve ever met, with a literary blog Via Negativa, where drafts of these poems first appeared. Oh, here’s a poem from January with the internet in it!

     23 January

     looking at bird tracks in the snow
     I feel a certain anxiety
     of influence

     and just one phone line
     for all the caravans of the internet
     its wavy shadow

     I chew on a piece of congealed
     black cherry sap
     from a head-sized burl

I love that reference to the “anxiety of influence.” And I love this reference to Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza in a stanza about his battles with the wind farm:

     Sancho I say to myself
     those windmills aren’t giants
     they’re flowers for the dead

And here’s a totally scary and wonderful poem from February:

     5 February

     I remember the chicken-
     killing dog
     my brother’s pet

     and the gray fox that sat
     and gazed at us like an angel
     one that foamed at the mouth

     holding a rifle is like
     holding an infant
     wary of setting it off

“9 February” has a “bark ode” bar code pun, and Bonta’s wit, intelligence, and compassion are evident everywhere in the writing of this book, from foreword to poems to helpful notes at the end. “14 February” is an unconventional valentine to the winter world.

     14 February

     it snowed all night
     I dreamt an opossum slept between us
     with its death-head grin

     by first light
     the old dog statue in the yard
     is buried up to its neck

     let’s get a bowl of fresh snow
     not to eat but just to admire
     like cut flowers

In February, I found the familiar February thaw that used to be known as the “January thaw.” (Is this an example of climate change?) And a little later, this, death and beauty, side by side:

     27 February

     when it died the porcupine
     leaked its fluids onto the snow
     like a junker car

     I turn it over
     with a long stick
     no sign of a wound

     startled up from the forest floor
     sixteen doves go whistling
     into the snow squall

In late March, I was reminded of the word for that smell in the air when the rain finally comes.

     from 28 March

     petrichor that musk
     the soil gives off after rain
     is strongest when long delayed

I had just smelled it here in June after a dry spell! Petrichor!

And here is some gorgeousness from April, the cruelest month, on tax day:

     15 April

     what would the wind do
     without the daffodils’ yellow
     hoopla of blooms

     tree leaves are still packed
     tight as gunpowder
     in their slim cartridges

     when the wind brings
     the rumor of a storm
     only the rhododendron turns pale

Oh, how I love that “hoopla of blooms.” Spring does come to the mountain in Bonta’s book, and dogs do romp in the woods, and these poems are indeed dark and lyrical, containing the suspended humor of truncated comic strips. As we laze or doze during the dog days of summer, it’s good to recall that “huge natural refrigerator” and let it remind us to do what we can do to counter global warming, lest all our windmills become flowers for the dead.

Dave Bonta’s Website

Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa 

Dave Bonta’s Moving Poems 

Ice Mountain at Phoenicia Publishing

Review of Scar by Carrie Etter (about extreme weather)

3eanuts

Do Dogs Go to Heaven? (from 3eanuts)

Coprophagia