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Tim Stobierski on What’s This, Bombardier? 

What’s This, Bombardier?

Ryan Flaherty

Pleiades Press, 2011


An impressive first book by the stunning new poet Ryan Flaherty, What’s This, Bombardier? uses rigorous poetry to paint in a new light the complexities of how we perceive and define our world. Whether dealing with etymology or imaginary assemblies or with the general uncertainties of existence, this book is an exercise in both abstraction and precision; it is as if Descartes said “I think, therefore I am. Maybe.


Divided into four sections, this text conceives its own universe with its own rules, rules that dwell on the boundary between knowing and not knowing. The very first line in the book, from “Conditionals”, sums up these rules succinctly: “All worlds begin with asking.” It is by asking questions that we create the world, define it, give it meaning – it is by asking questions that we release the potential energy held within that void.


This potential is made especially clear in the poem “Questions of Apropos,” which shows us a soldier getting ready to toss a bomb out of his plane. In this poem, the speaker both knows and doesn’t know what he is doing; he is moving through the motions as if by instinct, without realizing what is happening or what is going to happen. It is a buzz, a rush. Things blur:


[…]As the curtains

pull back, what curtains, as the mechanical arms


of the bay doors push into what light, I step back against

the walls that are like the rind of what fruit, a thin metal


between me and what cloud?


The uncertainty extends all the way to what is essentially the core of his mission:


Is it a basis of intelligence or just a molecular quirk

drawing me to the edge, my fingers going numb


from holding this “thing” over the opened cargo doors,

and I am holding what, exactly, bombardier?


Can we truly believe the speaker when he says that he doesn’t know what he is doing? It is a difficult thing to do. But if we think of it in terms of psychology it makes at least some semblance of sense. If he doesn’t know what this “thing” is that he is throwing out the airplane, then he cannot be held accountable for his actions. If it is a bomb, he doesn’t know – it is merely a “thing.” While it is most likely that this “thing” is a bomb, it truly could be anything; the definition of what it is, it seems, falls to the reader. And with each definition the poem changes; the world of the poem changes; an entire new reality is created.


Flaherty exploits this logic expertly throughout the course of his book, as this is a book preoccupied with asking. In one way or another, each poem in this collection poses at least one question to the reader. What’s more, the text loops in upon itself, demanding constant reevaluation and reinterpretation – once the reader feels that he has finally got a grip on an idea, a new question arises to challenge that foothold. By circling back on thoughts and themes throughout the book, the poet has created a text that begs to be reread over and over again, with each reading spawning a new understanding or lack of understanding – each just as valued as the last.


Despite the text’s preoccupation with asking, however, there are gems of precision-crafted statements scattered throughout. Take “Canticle Against the Canticle” for example:


There is a certain shame necessary

to living well[…]


The directness of this statement contrasts well against the uncertainty that surrounds it; it is unexpected, and that makes it all the more powerful. It is passages like this one that shows us that Flaherty knows what he is doing – he makes the reader expect one thing and then uses those expectations to his advantage.


Winner of the Lena-Miles Weaver Todd Poetry Prize

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