The title of Chelsea Bunn’s chapbook Forgiveness perfectly anchors each balanced, impactful poem, becoming the unifying thread that titles may often yearn to be yet rarely achieve. From the collection’s first poem “Cancer” to the final aching words, it feels as if Bunn has packed more than a collection’s worth of emotion and literary epiphany into this work. These are poems that dwell in a space where forgiveness is pursued, the wounds left open long past bleeding, the reader guessing whether a literary suture is ever enough to help us move on.
Chapbooks often leave me wanting more of a poet’s work, and certainly that occurs here, but the more impressive feat that Bunn accomplishes is to make it seem that this brief cocktail of poems leaves nothing on the table. Every single poem holds its own and could be nominated for the Pushcart and win of its own accord. Compile them as Bunn has and they become far better than most full-length collections I encounter.
An early poem called “These Stories Are True”, that functions as an erasure of statements made by prominent men after being accused of sexual misconduct, imprinted Bunn’s name in my mind as a poet I will eagerly follow for years to come if she continues to produce work as biting and affecting as this. Her poem “To Excess” sits in the abyss of a consumerist habit and closes with the haunting lines: “Give me / what I deserve. / Give me / a dark room, / a decade, / a divorce. / I will bear it all and then / come back for more.”
Later, in “Last Call,” she makes propulsive illumination of how it feels to want forgiveness or perhaps the reciprocal of wanting desperately to offer forgiveness without a clear path forward. She says, “your every nerve lit / by plain, absolute longing.” After that, “Inheritance”, whose title portends the poem’s ironic climax, explores the small unkindnesses within a family that must be weighted in the wake of someone’s death. The space that echoes from the poem’s final line filled the room I was in when I first read it and it became difficult to continue reading the next poem, such was the haunt of those lines. In a world that moves at a frantic pace, it is a rare, effervescent poem that is able to stop me wholly.
Finally, having moved through forgiveness in its various guises and stretched that emotional rope as far as it goes, Bunn closes with “Desert Impasse”, where she hopes “That here, all sins / are turned to dust.” As with every other poem in Forgiveness, “Desert Impasse” and its yearn vibrate off the page, nearly bioluminescent for the way they glow with an emotional matter catalyzed through Bunn’s gorgeous syntax and restraint.
Rarely do I see a book whose title, individual poem titles, and internal climaxes so snugly align. Under Bunn’s critical eye, some new alchemy has wrought a visceral, unforgettable work that resonates and clutches at my coattails, unforgiving in its pursuit of the reader’s heart. Sit for a while, ache with this book, and you will be a better human when the last page closes. Or, at least, a more thoughtful one.