Preparing to Leave

by Stephen Bunch

$15 US
Chapbook - 22 poemsChapbooks.html

Table of Contents


Preparing to Leave

Curriculum Vitae

My Teachers

Evening

Conversation

The Distances

Pivot

Voice Mail

On First Seeing My Granddaughter in

     Sonograms

Arriving

Homeless

Despair Parts

Lost

Newspaper Mulch

The Human Sloughs Its Skin More

    Subtly

Absorbed

Against Gravity

Exit Wounds

March First—A Marsh—First Mark

Accounting

Dying

Remains

About the author:

Stephen Bunch lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas, where he received the 2008 Langston Hughes Award for Poetry from the Lawrence Arts Center and Raven Books. He received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2010. His poems can be found in Autumn Sky Poetry, The Externalist, The Literary Bohemian, Fickle Muses, and Umbrella. From 1978 to 1988, he edited and published Tellus, a little magazine that featured work by Victor Contoski, Edward Dorn, Jane Hirshfield, Donald Levering, Denise Low, Paul Metcalf, Edward Sanders, and many others. After a fifteen-year hibernation, he awoke in 2005 and resumed writing. Preparing to Leave is his first gathering of poems.


From the author:

I think my poems usually come about as an attempt to make sense for myself of the world around me. I seldom begin a poem with any idea of how or where it will end. Instead, each poem is, for me, a kind of exploration prompted by anything from a newspaper article to a snippet of conversation overheard in the checkout line to a series of apparently unrelated observations I’ve scribbled in my notebook over a period of time. For me, the greatest satisfaction comes from setting out in the uncharted territory of the writing of the poem and then beginning to see (sometimes intuit) connections between apparently unrelated things or ideas (usually the former, from which the latter may arise). If I’m lucky, by the time I reach the end I understand where the poem has been and how it got to where it was going. I guess it’s what people sometimes call the “ah ha!” moment, and if the poem can give that moment to other readers, it has succeeded beyond my selfish expectations for it. More often the poem leaves questions unanswered for me, but in those cases, again if I’m lucky, it at least has helped me form the question or a framework within which to ponder the question.


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From the publisher:

For several decades, Stephen Bunch contributed to the world of poetry behind the scenes where he quietly and tirelessly worked to promote the efforts of other writers as a college English instructor, copy editor, and course program developer.  With near anonymity, he served as the editor and publisher of a small literary magazine, Tellus, for ten years to promote the efforts of many lesser known poets as well as poets who had achieved national acclaim.  Most of these poets have progressed forward with their careers, and some of these lesser known poets have moved into the spotlight of literary prominence having received accolades for their achievements, yet each of them, no matter to what extent the breadth of their work has become known, is indebted to some degree to the efforts of this man.  Along the way, when he was not furthering the literary exposure of others, he cultivated his own craft, sometimes taking years to perfect the details of a poem.


I first met Stephen Bunch in 2007 through the online poetry forum sponsored by The Academy of American Poets where he moderated the advanced poetry workshop for several years before I joined.  In 2008, he retired as the workshop’s dedicated moderator, but I remained in contact with him, and after a time, he began to send me his work privately.  From him I read new poems as often as I read poems that had seen decades of honing, and though much of his poetry is stylistically and thematically very different from my own, I was and still am taken by the subtleties of craft and the thoughtful contemplation that permeates each of his poems no matter their degree of completion or theme.


During my correspondence with him, under the assumption that collections of his work had been widely published, I inquired as to where I could purchase his books of poetry.  With much humility, he informed me this was not the case, which made me cherish his willingness to share his work with me all the more.  He once wrote to me about his work on Tellus, and one day I received a small package containing more than a few of the remaining copies of the magazine from his private collection.  They now stand in our library barrister joining our collection of the first copy of each of the chapbooks from our published series.


After we established our small press, I felt compelled to encourage and invite Stephen to submit a manuscript to us for consideration.  It was my hope that amidst the years of compositions he would find a body of work that coincided with the themes we publish.  I have never been disappointed by Stephen Bunch’s work, and his manuscript was no exception.


In Preparing to Leave, Stephen Bunch takes us on a journey of contemplation and exploration, documenting along the way a myriad of human experiences as he tries to understand the world, his place in it, and discover what it means to be human.  As with the teachings of all great educators, this master of observation poses more questions for us to consider than he offers answers, and in so doing, he helps us to contemplate our own humanity and our relationships with others; the indelible marks we have left on those we have encountered, whether good or bad; and the paths we have chosen and whether we have chosen well and achieved our full potential.


Bunch’s poetry is grounded in the tangible, exploring those aspects of life where the perceptions of the senses become the basis for understanding one’s own circumstances and surroundings.  There is a crispness in his use of imagery that many poets struggle to achieve, and his ability to illuminate the essence of a moment is striking because of the clarity with which he reveals it.  There are few poetic techniques he has not mastered; and what stands out most are the subtleties with which he plies those techniques layer upon layer on his poems and how easily a reader could overlook them because his poetry reads so easily and so completely.


In the pages that follow, you will find some of my favorite poems penned by Stephen, “Conversation,” “The Distances,” “On First Seeing My Granddaughter in Sonograms,” “March First—A Marsh—First Mark,” and “Dying.”  It is impossible, though, for me to identify one favorite poem among this collection or among the myriad of poems that are not included here because he has written with such proliferation on so many different topics.  Whether you claim to be included among the readers who have followed Stephen Bunch’s poetry for years or whether you are just now discovering his work for the first time, I hope this small introduction to his poetry spurs you to seek out more of his work, because I believe that you too will become as enamored by his poetic pen as I have.


It is with great pleasure that I now present to you Preparing to Leave by Stephen Bunch.  We at The Lives You Touch Publications are honored to be the first among a group of many publishers who will bring his words to the world in the future.


O.P.W. Fredericks, Editor


I think of Stephen Bunch as a Charles Olsonesque figure, a large man of prodigious intelligence and learning, perhaps better known for his influence on and promotion of other poets than for publically advancing his own work.  From 1978 to 1988, he edited and published the seminal poetry magazine Tellus, where he featured such then lesser-known luminaries as Jane Hirshfield, Denise Low, Paul Metcalf, and Edward Sanders.  More recently, he served as a Moderator for the Academy of American Poets online Forum.  More and more, his own poetry is being published and acknowledged. He won the 2008 Langston Hughes Award for Poetry.  So for those of us who have been watching him quietly turn out exquisite poems for years, the publication of this chapbook of his poems is long overdue and welcome.


Victor Contoski, mentor of many poets including Stephen Bunch and yours truly, schooled his students in using the language of the concrete.  We were taught to eschew abstractions in favor of careful observation and precise description.  This is a lesson all beginning poets need to learn.  However, the mature poet, such as Stephen Bunch, is able to move on from this precept to artfully blend the concrete with the abstract to fulfil the potential of language to name what we see and think and feel.  The result for Mr. Bunch are poems rich in observation and intriguing in imagination and implication.  Consider the opening stanzas of “Homeless”:


    Mourning dove buskers play their bamboo flutes

    for a handful of birdseed tossed on a tree stump.

    Cottonwoods have dropped anchor in the troughs

    and swells of the neighboring hills, extended

    their roots deep under dry creek beds

    for one last distilled memory of snow.

   

    If this landscape were less expansive

    than language, I might be able to name

    my home or parse the syntax of thunder

    as it spreads across the plains

    or gauge the vertical persistence

    of this morning’s rainfall.


Like Olson’s steadfast gaze on Gloucester, Stephen Bunch’s work is rooted in a particular place.  For him, the landscape of the Midwest is more expansive than language, and it is the landscape that frees his language to explore such concepts as snowmelt groundwater as “distilled memory” or how rain embodies “vertical persistence.”  The latter concept flows into the poem “Absorbed,” where the character of the poem “parsed the subtext of tide tables” and “mapped the dark nexus of storm drains.”


Bunch’s experience and skill as a poet is evidenced in the variety of forms, styles, and subjects explored in the chapbook.  Included are two haiku and two other short, imagistic poems, as well as longer narrative poems, and even a very Emily Dickensonian lyric, “The Human Sloughs Its Skin.”  Accomplished dream poems (“Absorbed,” “My Teachers”) stand next to poems celebrating the waking world, or rather, being awake to the world.


Indeed, the poems in Preparing to Leave dwell in that ambiguous realm between the naming and the blessing of the things of this world and the recognition of their temporary nature and ultimate detachment from them, in anticipation of the final departure.


Straightaway in the title poem, the speaker keys us to the unique quality of naming employed by this poet.  He says, “The name should be as natural/as an old scar.”  Scars are the result of natural healing processes, but they are also markers of trauma, of life experience.  So we can expect the naming in these poems to have resonance, a promise thereafter achieved.  The opening poem also points to the detachment named in the later poems in the collection, “I’ll need to forget/the faces of where I’ve been.”


“Arriving” is one of the poems where the speaker cherishes moments of the world, but not in any sentimental or otherwise predictable way.  Instead, he celebrates arriving into the moment of noting “for the first time the chair’s/worn fabric when the cardinal/ceases singing.”  A more conventional poet would focus on the sounds of the cardinal’s singing, but Bunch, like Miles Davis, wants us to hear the silence between phrases.  This arrival into the present where new observations are made can only be done, asserts the speaker, by consciously forgetting your personal nurturing, even “the songs you think she (your mother) sang” while you were in utero.


Another arrival poem is the tender “On First Seeing My Granddaughter in Sonograms,” in which the speaker, addressing the unborn child,  welcomes “your descent into this life, its objects/and affections.”


Preparing to Leave includes some masterful poems about relationships.  Two poems that honor the daily interchange of people living together are “Conversation” and “The Distances.”  In these poems, we are presented a picture of a couple who live their separate lives “but keep returning” to the dinner table “reporting what we’ve found.”  They “part and return in the diurnal dance.”  “Distances” is a love poem about a couple who are “attentive to the tensions/of the molecules that make us up.”  Instead of the usual platitudes about lovers being fused into a single being, Bunch highlights the interplay of persons alive to each other’s uniqueness.


While some of these poems speak of the comfort in connection, they also address the inevitable disconnections.  In “Pivot,” a painterly poem about the vectors of diurnal change, the speaker turns to tell his companion about the shifting wind, but finds her gone.  “Voice Mail” is a particularly keen exploration of the concept of missed connections.  As a technology to communicate when the live person cannot be present to answer a call, voice mail would commonly be perceived as an aid to making connection.  However, this poem looks at voice mail as a symbol of unrealized communication.  In it, there is the friend’s missed “heads-up” to go outdoors to witness “the last total eclipse of my lifetime.”  The speaker also imagines the voice mail of a daughter he never had.


From disconnection, the emphasis in the book shifts to detachment.  “Newspaper Mulch,” “Exit Wounds,”  “Absorbed,” “Dying,” and “Remains” all conclude with a speaker increasingly removed from the quotidian details of the world.  This detachment is quite pronounced in “Curriculum Vitae” where “the mind floats indifferent...Beyond the mechanics of habit/and the grammar of flesh.”


Bunch excels at carrying an extended metaphor through stanzas and whole poems.  In “Newspaper Mulch,” not just the newsprint, but the old news—the Love Canals, Kissinger’s lies, “the spew of St. Helens” — is laid down for the benefit of the garden.  We have to laugh the laugh of resignation as he tells us, “As things got worse, my garden prospered.”  Ultimately, the poem is concerned with withdrawal from the world.  The extended metaphor is also employed in the poem about viewing his granddaughter’s sonogram, which is couched in terms of  ocean swells and the flotsam gifts: “you wait for the wave that will take you/to our strange shore.”  Another poem where a single metaphor moves throughout the poem is “Absorbed,” where the speaker plumbs the waterworks of dreams.


The series of poems in the middle of the book, beginning with “On First Seeing My Granddaughter...” and ending in “Despair Parts” are endlessly rewarding to the careful reader both as individual poems and in the harmonic interplay of their sequencing.  The concentration of language that Bunch manages in these poems is admirable.


    Despair parts, he called them,

    the items he gleaned from garage sales

    when someone or some marriage died.


Such puns make us do more than groan; they intensify our experience.  I do not think I will ever take garage sales as casually as before reading Bunch’s poignant poem.  I look forward to his next collection to help me stay attentive to language and to life.


Donald Levering, author of Whose Body.

A review of Whose Body can be found here.

From the critics:


Steve Bunch’s new fistful of poems is sedimentary. He lays down plies of ideas and images, and their juxtapositions create humorous absurdities. “Newspaper Mulch” is an example:


    One summer I kept the watergrass down

    with nerve gas in Afghanistan,

    CIA assassins in Nicaragua,

    Hooker Chemicals in Love Canal.

   

    I spread climbing interest rates

    in the onion rows.

    The pope’s trip to Africa

    protected the eggplants.


World events, mostly dire, fall into a new layer of time, like a geological epoch. The domestic garden levels these events into human-sized perspective. Yet the horror of nerve gas, assassins, Love Canal radiation leakage, and economic stress remain in mind. This poet writes pointed political comments without pedantic rant. He allows nothing to float into abstract indifference, and because of detailed catalogues, his critique gathers power.


Bunch also works with irony in his writing. He uses a chummy, accessible narrative voice to deliver the most distressing news: “As things got worse, my garden prospered.” Paradox is another of his many strategies.


This is a collection of practiced poetic wit. Steve Bunch has absolute control of his writing as he looks at modern absurdities of wars, mortality, and tedium. The language jumps off the page as he turns ideas around, pokes fun, and resolves, implicitly, to be a better human. Natural laws create a continuous backdrop that unifies the collection. His survivor’s humor is attractive, and he entrances his readers into believing in his world. This is a formidable set of poems.



Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-2009.

Denise Low’s blog, Publications


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As the title indicates, Preparing to Leave, a collection of poems by Stephen Bunch, deals with themes of travel and journey.  Bunch situates us in a place made familiar with images of cottonwoods and sycamores, doves and cardinals, garage sales and the Sunday newspaper.  Then, often as not, he twists us around, with a wry smile, and points us in another direction.  The poem “Preparing to Leave” suggests that the journey requires only two things: “I’ll need a name and a map / before I go. / The rest I can invent.”   Generally, we are given our names at birth; maps can be found at the gas station or drugstore, but on this journey, the speaker will “need to forget / the faces of where I’ve been, / forget how long I’ve been gone.”  This journey, with a map to “fold unnoticed / inside any story I might tell,” leads to the invention of one’s own identity; something earned, not given.  Bunch reminds us of the many unexpected choices we have made in our lives, and that the future is always a mystery.


The speaker in these poems is a man alone with himself, with his thoughts, memories, and moods.  Nevertheless, he is not a solitary person, but one who resides within a community of family, friends, and mentors.  Former teachers come to his house; they want to go bowling, they look at slides of famous paintings, eat popcorn, but they decline the speaker’s interest in their other daily routines: “I want to join them, but they say no, / I know too much already.”  In the poem “Distances,” Bunch writes of the daily separation for two people whose ordinary activities take them away from each other each morning; at night though: “attentive to the tensions / of the molecules that make us up. / In dark rooms your hand grasps mine / and I’m calm for a moment knowing the stars / will never be this close again.”   The poem “Voice Mail” muses about the voice of a daughter he never had, while the concluding lines from “On First Seeing My Granddaughter in Sonograms” anticipates life with a new member of the family: “I await your arrival to share for a time / this thin strand in the widening world.”


The poems in Preparing to Leave are strongly musical; the speaker is someone “singing to anyone who will listen.”  Bunch expertly utilizes alliteration, assonance and slant rhyme, as shown in the smooth l’s and long e’s and i’s of the following lines: “forget that light is liquid dreaming, / that stars are white holes in the ceiling / just after sleep comes.”  Also, several poems pay homage to poetic mentors—Pound, Blake, and Creeley—and two haiku  (“Lost” and “Evening”) to the Japanese poetic tradition.


These are strong, well-considered, well-modulated pieces.  Mulching the vegetable garden with old newspapers becomes fraught with the perils of politics:  “I spread hostages on the ground, / the Klan’s murders and Kissinger’s lies.”  Everything works to control the chokegrass and bindweed.  “As things got worse,” he writes, “my garden prospered.”  “March First—A Marsh—First Mark,” with an epigraph from Jasper Johns, alternates descriptions of spring time with lines from the Bible.   “Every automobile shines today / on parade in the sun / like salamanders rising glistening from the mud” and “Later today we shall eat off white plates / lined up on a table by a sun-filled windows / and listen to the south wind blow the sky away.”


Finally, one comes to see that the poems in Preparing to Leave describe a man who would be a comfortable, entertaining, and reliable companion on any journey one cared to make—a trip to the store, across the galaxy, or to the other side of the grave.  Preparing to Leave extols the profound resiliency of the human spirit, the occasional quirkiness of the human experience, and the wonder and gladness that infuses human love.


Diane Hueter, author of Kansas: Just Before Sleep

Co-editor of To Everything on Earth: New Writing

on Faith, Community, and Nature


~ ~


The 22 one-page poems in Stephen Bunch’s Preparing to Leave bring to mind the poet Basil Bunting’s location of the definition, “dichten=condensare” in a German-Italian dictionary.   That is, the composing of poetry is condensation.


These condensations on mortality succeed through a succession of lines and images that does not waste, as they occur amidst the quotidian listings of a life as a poet, publisher, husband, father, worker and philosophical ruminator.  Working from entries in notebooks and disparate note-downs, Bunch triumphs in this book—  pondering, pondering, pondering—  eliding, shapeshifting the images, commingling sound and substance into skeins of lines.


In poems such as “Exit Wounds”  Bunch delivers in fine detail the results of his ceaseless search for meaning in the flow of his time here on Gaia:


    Perhaps a page is torn

    or missing here and there,

    but the story still plays out

    its diaspora of words.

   

    A sign on an abandoned shack

    says OPEN.


That is, he remains Open to the Great Exploration.


I admire his powers of observation, as in the poem, “March First— a Marsh— First Mark,”


    Otters reappear after one hundred years

    their coats finally worth less

    than the real estate they navigate,

    their tracks like hieroglyphics

    with a long brushstroke of tail,

    while overhead the vapor trails

    of other travelers dissipate

    and faces fade with distance.


This is a book that invites several readings, something said about a very few.


Edward Sanders, Woodstock, New York

Author of Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War

Founder & Editor, The Woodstock Journal

Copyright © 2011

Touch: The Journal of Healing

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