By Kate Bolton Bonnici
The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, 2020
Reviewed by Bee Baldwin
In her deeply moving and award-winning book of poetry, Night Burial, Alabama native Kate Bolton Bonnici depicts a daughter’s loss of her mother to cancer and offers an intimate shared experience of the grieving journey. Within the pages of Night Burial, interwoven are the themes of motherhood, daughterhood, and the complexities and suffering of the female body. Through her use of elegy, we come to know Bonnici’s mother, her life in its final years, and the wake of sorrow and healing that remains after her passing.
Bonnici’s use of the “you” in her poetry brilliantly strengthens the bond between mother and daughter in Night Burial. As some poems speak directly to Bonnici’s mother, others speak to her own daughters. For instance, the poems “Recurrence” and “Blood Lines” are directed towards one of her daughters, and by doing so, Bonnici reflects on both her role as a both mother and daughter. In the former poem, she speaks to her daughter, reflecting on how young her husband looks, “I said like a kid / You said like someone who still has a mother.” These two short lines hang heavy in your chest as you can just feel how devastating that remark must have felt for Bonnici as she was preparing for her mother’s death.
Bonnici writes, “Your mother dies. / The most ordinary thing.” The theme of motherhood and daughterhood is continued through her reflecting on the concept that her mother was a daughter, too. While her mother battled cancer, Bonnici’s maternal grandmother also deteriorates, as shown in the following unnamed poem: “This week my mother’s mother fell. Hemorrhagic stroke. / First night home from the ICU my mother / dropped her mother trying to transfer her to the toilet.” The loss of the mother is doubled in Bonnici’s telling, creating a parallel of two mothers lost as Bonnici lives on as the mother to her own daughters.
Bonnici skillfully separates her poetry into four sections: Fall Risk, Ordinary Time, Night Burial, and The Former Object of My Everything. The sections act as glimpses into passages of time during her mother’s illness, final days, death, and the grief that remains afterwards.
The third section of the book, Night Burial, is where the grief is most poignant. The poems are very short in comparison to the other poems in Night Burial and all go unnamed. The poetry of this third section exquisitely encapsulates the reeling emotions of shock, loss, disorientation, anger, and turmoil. The poems are desperate grasps for something to ground the speaker in this storm of mourning: “How to know someone is dying? Check their feet for mottling. / We covered yours/hers—when? Before or after? / Before is short. But the after—.” Bonnici gives insight on the day her mother passed and the guilt that remains for not being there with her, “…& my mother / stopped breathing forever / For one minute / I left the room / & what does it mean / Now I breath this forever in.”
I do not know how else to describe Night Burial other than to say that it is a true experience. I poured over its pages and felt what I can only guess to be an ounce of the poet’s grief, and for that, I am grateful to Bonnici. Grief and love are wound so tightly around one another, they cannot exist without each other. Although the grief weighs heavy in every line of every poem in Night Burial, so too does Bonnici’s everlasting love for her mother.
Bee Baldwin is currently finishing up their Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. They have acted as editor-in-chief of Oracle Fine Arts Review, South Alabama’s creative writing journal, and they have worked with the Stokes Center for Creative Writing.