Book Review

Odes to Tools by Dave Bonta. Montreal: Phoenicia, 2009.

Reviewed by Noel Sloboda

In the chapbook Odes to Tools, Dave Bonta celebrates the contents of supply sheds everywhere: from planes to crowbars; from wire brushes to hand trucks; from claw hammers to plumb bobs. The inspired conceit of honoring traditional tools enables the author to look beyond the human lives that preoccupy so many contemporary poets, to focus instead on the implements used to shape such lives. While Bonta does not represent all of these implements with equal power, most of the poems in Odes to Tools are funny, intelligent, and memorable.

The strongest selections from this collection address the hard but rewarding work of making meaning—and not exclusively with hand tools. This stanza from “Ode to a Shovel” provides a good example:

                        I love groundbreaking,
                        holding the handle out like
                        a dance partner, momentarily solemn
                        until the first little hop
                        onto the top lip of the blade

We can easily imagine these lines relating to a first draft, for, like most poets, Bonta frequently comments on his craft. His claw hammer “hop[s] / on its one flat foot,” and his spirit level “elicits a squint & a whistle / at whatever fails to fall into line” (emphasis added). However, when his poetry most resonates, it is not because of insights into the artistic process, but because we encounter real people endeavoring to use tools to impose order both on the physical world and on their own affairs. Consider the first stanza of “Ode to a Chalk Line Reel”:
The day after Bo Diddley died, I watched a carpenter stretch a line the length
of a board & give it a pluck: a diddley bow with no resonator, dry chalk
instead of a bottleneck slider’s glissando note. I’d been expecting blue, but   
this line was red. The saw followed shortly with its howling eraser.

By comparison, Bonta’s poems that center on personified tools, such as “Ode to a Socket Wrench” and “Ode to a Coping Saw,” are less immediate. They typically include strong figures (“Scissors with an overbite,” saws with “as many teeth / as a school of piranhas,” scythes that “huddle together / in corners”). However, as means without ends, they have less dramatic urgency than the poems that concern people using devices. In addition, the interplay between line and syntax in Bonta’s verse is not always as dynamic as it could be. In “Ode to a Shoehorn,” for instance, the speaker states that “A shoehorn’s a sort of / spoon-shaped chute / for the foot,” then later remarks “Boots are for those who toot their own horns.” Declarative sentences serve nicely for exposition, but they can flatten a poetic voice, even one enlivened by strong alliteration. Bonta is better when dealing with images, particularly in shorter works, such as the haiku-like series “Ode to Scissors.” Take these two selections:

                        A pair of old jeans —
                        I amputate both legs
                        with a pair of scissors.
                        The raccoon going through
                        the new trash on the riverbank
                        is delighted to find a shiny orphaned half
                        of a pair of scissors.

Or look at this stanza from “Ode to a House Jack”:

                        The hound under the porch
                        noses at the growing
                        hoard of sunlight

Such striking visuals appear in many, though not all, of Bonta’s work.

Despite the occasional unevenness of this chapbook, Odes to Tools has a strong unifying vision. In almost all of his poems, Bonta dwells on conflicts between past and present. He observes how the hatchet that enjoyed regular employment “When we raised poultry” has fallen into disuse. And he sings a dirge for the magnetic screwdriver, which “might as well be / a relic from / the Mesozoic,” since “the power drill / with screwdriver bit / has replaced it.”  Allusions to Frost and Williams similarly exploit tensions between “then” and “now,” while making a case for the implements of old, “Better than all power tools.” In the service of tradition, Bonta’s subjects not only make their own beautiful music but sometimes speak to one another. They make readers mindful of what might yet be made of the past, without calling up feelings of nostalgia. Given the force of Bonta’s vision and his cleverness, I enjoyed Odes to Tools, and I look forward to seeing what he builds next.

Noel Sloboda lives in Pennsylvania, where he teaches at Penn State York and serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company. He is the author of the poetry collection Shell Games (sunnyoutside, 2008) and the chapbooks Stages (sunnyoutside, 2010) and Of Things Passed (Finishing Line Press, 2010).