Nina's Reviews > Temper

Temper by Beth Bachmann
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Jun 01, 12




Temper is a tightly constructed collection of poems meticulously arranged around the central theme of a sister’s murder, and the fact that the father is the main suspect. The anger is so well-controlled in these poems that it increases the tension. There is no ranting and raving, no wailing. The poems are short, there is almost no use of enjambment, and most of the stanzas consist of 2 or 3 lines. The terse lines indicate the speaker’s need to control a situation that is so out-of-control it defies social expectations.
Move closer. I want to tell you a story. It has its blood knots, its changing
water,
the usual lures: Family, violence, a margin left bare for interpretive remark.
(Paternoster)

I rarely read a collection straight through; usually, I read a few poems, stop to savor and think. On my second read of this book, I went straight through, and the tension was palpable. The speaker seems to be holding her rage inside, although the reader can feel it simmering. The poems are infused with violence.
Because of the struggle,
her arms and legs resisting,
you might take one look at the shape in the snow and say,
swan or angel,
(Erato)

There is an effective use of repetition, which serves to remind the reader that a girl has died, that unspeakable violence has occurred.
See this handful of birds I release on the church steps?
I do this to remind you.
(Luminous Mystery)
The word “mystery” appears in several poem titles, which plays into the fact that the father’s guilt or innocence is never established.
Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t.
Nothing’s resolved. But what does it matter?
(Mystery Ending With A Girl In A Field)

Temper is a powerful, superbly crafted collection of poems, one after another offering snippets of information, building a story of violence, murder, and love. Bachman doesn’t offer answers or excuses, she doesn’t flinch from writing about the body; we witness her truth. With her use of “you,” the speaker demands that the reader bear witness.
You want to know what was left
for weeks in the weeds:

the trauma to the head,
the naked waist, my sister.
(After The Telling)

The final lines of the closing poem inform us of the weight of a sister’s love.
Lovesick,
I flick a feather into the water. No stones.
Only the one in my pocket, heavy as a tongue.
(Elegy)
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