In a launch of her third book of poetry at the Princeton Public Library, Saturday, Betty Bonham Lies jumped right in with the poem that opens Padiddle, and sets the tone for the first of the book’s three sections.
“Sex everywhere;/the earth/hums dark with sex/last summer’s swinging seeds/are coupling in/the most unlikely corners.” So begins “Panspermia,” after the epigram explains the term as the “hypothesis that the seeds of life are ubiquitous in the universe and may have been delivered to Earth and … other habitable bodies.”
Sex and love, memory and marriage feature large in this book, which follows The Blue Laws and The Day After I Drowned. Ms. Lies’s work can be heartbreaking and funny, often both at the same time.
In The Day After I Drowned she writes of profound loss, her husband’s illness and death. In Padiddle, she gives us scenes from her own marriage as well as celebrations of couples and coupling. Judy Rowe Michaels puts it this way: “Betty Lies revels in possibility of form, wordplay, music, and above all, in the possibilities of coupling … pairs of words marry their way into metaphor, and she sees possibilities even in the most unlikely couples.”
Ms. Lies’s imagination yields some surprising pairings here: Emily Dickinson and Elvis, Paul Bunyan and Julia Child, Zeus and Amelia Earhart. My favorite is “At the Ball, Johnny Depp Approaches Miss Austen” but “Martha Stewart Drops in on Beowulf’s Mead Hall,” comes in a close second. Ms. Lies knows how to entertain.
“Of course, most of these pairings don’t turn out that well,” she told the audience, before describing the source of her “Sleeping with Wiglaf,” inspired not so much by the hero from the Beowulf epic as by her son’s cat of the same name. “Wiglaf was separated from his mother too early and had some intellectual and social problems, the saddest thing was that he used to suck his little paw,” she said.
Beowulf, pussycats, the vast soupy cosmos, all are grist for this poet’s wit. Her subjects range across a vast landscape of imagination, from the classical to the whimsical. From a Japanese temple dedicated to broken sewing needles to fabric softener. Even, she said, in a television anchor’s blooper, launching into a poem from an earlier collection. In reporting fires in the mountains behind Santa Barbara the newsman had spoken of “erotic” rather than “erratic” winds.
In case you are wondering, the book’s title, “Padiddle,” comes from a night time driving game: a kiss for every one-eyed car (i.e. with only one headlight working) spotted. One of my favorites from Padiddle is short enough to quote here in its entirety:
LOVE SONG IN POLKA TIME
The moon’s long horn dips deep
in the cup of ocean.
Let’s have a jamboree:
You be the oak,
I’ll be the sky,
I’ll be the jewelweed,
you be the bee
and sting me till I die.
Ms. Lies read the poem inspired by the circa 1930 photograph of her parents that appears on the book’s cover. It shows Bonnie and Bert (oddly enough he is Bonnie, a nickname derived from his last name of Bonham, and she is Bert, short for Bertha, a name she hated, said Ms. Lies) on the day of their engagement. “The Two of Them,” is a loving tribute to her parents and it opens the books second section.
In the third section, are poems written after the death of Ms. Lies’s husband. As Ms. Michaels notes, Ms. Lies “isn’t afraid to look back and knows ‘The air keeps moving/for a while/after the flute has stopped.”
Ms. Lies came to Princeton in 1961 and taught English at Stuart Country Day School for 25 years. She also taught at The College of New Jersey and is a Distinguished Teaching Artist for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and a Geraldine R. Dodge Poet for the the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. She currently teaches at Princeton’s Evergreen Forum and is a cherished member of the local US1 Poets’ Cooperative, for which she guides the annual journal, U.S.1 Worksheets, as its senior poetry editor. She has earned the Governor’s Award in Arts Education and been awarded several fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
With her son, Brian Lies, the noted children’s book author and illustrator, she wrote a guidebook for teachers of creative writing: The Poet’s Pen: Writing Poetry with Middle and High School Students (1993). Brian Lies is known for his bats series: Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, and others. He is a regular at the Library’s annual Princeton Children’s Book Festival.
Another of Ms. Lies’s titles, Earth’s Daughters: Stories of Women in Classical Mythology, was facilitated by a stay at the Vermont Studio Center. It was written to address the imbalance she perceived in existing books on mythology which featured gods, heroes, and monsters prominently and women only marginally.
For Ms. Lies, poetic inspiration comes from images or scraps of language, her process is one of discovery. “I try not to write about ideas because that never works,” she said. “If I know what I’m thinking it doesn’t work; you have to discover that by writing. I tell a child: surprise yourself, don’t try to control the poem, take your hands off the controls and let your poem soar.”
Although she wrote poetry all through her childhood, which was rural rather than urban, a fact that surfaces in her work, she more or less gave it up when she reached college, where it was discouraging to find a canon of “only dead, white, European and American male poets.” It wasn’t until the late 80s when Ms. Lies was already a seasoned teacher that she rediscovered her muse. Having invited poet Lynn Powell, then a Princeton resident, into her English class at Stuart, and working together with her students on assignments set by Ms. Powell, Ms. Lies began to write. At Ms Powell’s urging, she joined the U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative and then went on to found, with several other U.S.1 members, the Cool Women group. It was fellow member of the Cool Women group, Lois M. Harrod, who gave Padiddle it’s shape, said Ms. Lies. “Lois actually put the poems in order, then formatted it all on her computer to send to the publisher. I am intensely grateful to her.” Padiddle is published by Cool Women Press.
Ms. Lies’s Saturday reading took less than 20 minutes and seemed even shorter. At one point a member of the audience was heard to whisper to another, “She’s sensational.”
Fellow poet Scott McVay praises Padiddle as the work of a “wise conscious woman.”
The poet, now working on her next collection, has set herself a high standard to follow Padiddle. But, since the intrepid Ms. Lies is about to embark on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon, her readers can be confident of even more surprising discoveries.