where the writers are
"Shockingly Southern"
Date of Review: 
Jul.10.1990
Reviewer: 
Award-winnng Poet, Kennette Harrison (Wilkes); Book of the Year, Texas; Book of the Year Oklahoma; B
Source: 
A Huntsville Literary Association contest; review of, essay about, an Al literary person; also sent

"Appearances are more than deceiving when you meet Bonnie Roberts. They're downright misleading. She is an Alabama poet who moves with the grace of a southern belle. Her voice is lyrical and soft; her education the best the South can offer . . .

In the third decade of her life, there is little that distinguishes Roberts outwardly from the stereotypical, young southern woman. Only her long, brown hair, worn simply, might give a hint of the surprising forces beneath the gentle eyes and ready smile.

A perusal of the titles of her poems would immediately dislodge any misconceptions, however. They are extravagant and bold, with parenthetical subtitles which often shock or move the reader to laughter. In fact, the humor in her poems is distinctly earthy. There is no tittering behind a lacy handkerchief. The laugh begins at the center of being and erupts raucous. An innate sense of the ridiculous shines through Roberts' poems . . . .

The poetic feast that Roberts offers the reader is often much more than strength and orginality of her imagery, or the sensory excess at her table. She is queen of the kitchen, not only in her mastery of literary devices, but also in bringing together disparate parts in the T. S. Eliot tradition, creating a culinary delight. Food is frequently the philosophical sauce that transforms Roberts' poems . . . .

Bonnie Roberts is obviously enjoying her pilgrimage through the South and peopling the entourage with Chaucerian characters. There are the bawdy, the self-righteous, the sincere. She is not inhibited nor at all "lady-like" in the formal sense of the southern woman, but there is a seriousness of purpose, a sense of role as important--if it is a chosen role . . . .

In . . . "Poet of Gristle (Chew Me If You Can)" all the best elements of Roberts' skill cohere to create a 108-line work which maintains its strength logically and emotionally throughout. It is a tough self- and world- examination, beginning: "The last poet of honor was Homer" and ending, "This is as close to Homer as I can come" . . . .

In the second verse . . . the reader is launched into a poem of survival and hope where the poet's "light is dubious, but/I cut myself to find the truth" . . . .

What is extraordinary about Bonnie Roberts is her willingness to be vulnerable before the reader. She declares that she wants to heal herself, and then Shylock-like states, "Here is my human face./Can you see that I am no different?" She addresses the reader directly with her plea, "Demand that this honorless poet love you . . ./Put my fingers in your mouth and bite them./I will be shocked, but I will know you are real/of power."

There is an honesty and directness in Roberts' poetry that is entirely contemporary, but a comfort with emotion and words like "love" that is very southern. What prevents sentimentality is the pendulum on which she swings from the intensely personal to the objective and universal. She can say, "What good is honor to a forager poet/who is alive" and admit, "Every word I write is a plea for love./Love me, don't honor me . . . " but conclude, "If . . . you still insist on honoring me,/pay for my airfare when you invite me to read,/feed me the sweetest teacakes of the cultural league/and something stronger than lemonade."

The daring of a poet who would make a bold plea for love from the reader may be shocking. What is surprising is that Bonnie Roberts' work is in no way maudlin in its content. She is consciously seeking connectedness as most poets are. It is her recognition of her motives that enables her to write without embarrassment, "For this alone, I will love./I won't throw words at you anymore . . . " and admit, "Paper gristle isn't real tendon,/won't satisfy gnawing" . . . .

Bonnie Roberts is chewable, savory and worthy of digestion. She has emerged from a southern culture with her inheritance intact and expecting her reader to come to the table with knife honed, fork poised, and appetite ravenous. She may not feel comfortable flaunting the traditions of southern culture, but like the southern woman who quietly ruled the home with her womanly wiles, Roberts has managed to bridge the gap between expectations of her role as a southern woman and her place as a contemporary poet in a modern South.

Poems from A Baker's Dozen, especially "Sunday Southern Fried Sensuality" and "Poet of Gristle"