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Maldonado-SecretLivesOfUsKids_bookReviewed by Sonnie Sussillo

Bonnie Maldonado writes of life lived edgewise of easy, slant-wise from soft. In her most recent books of poetry, The Secret Lives of Us Kids-A Childhood Memoir 1941-1945, and Too Personal for Words-The Invisible Path of Aging we get a picture of her life from childhood to old age – the bookends of a life well-lived.

Secret Lives is a collection of narrative poems written with her brother Patrick F. Buckley, an oral historian and all-around story-teller. Bonnie describes the difficult life that she, Pat and their younger siblings had, growing up in the oilfields of Montana. She writes, “Our family landed in the oilfield two miles from the family ranch, which was lost to the bank in 1937.” And, “It is our story, the kids’ story…of how four children reacted to the losses around them.” (Introduction)

Their losses were intimate. They were the last grandchildren to live on the Buckley ranch. Bonnie remembers being evicted “on a Sunday morning after the bank foreclosed…” (“The Ranch”). Her mother struggled with depression, and her father, with alcohol. The kids were often left on their own, to do a man’s job—Pat—and a mother’s—Bonnie.

And yet, there is light and hope in these poems. She writes, “We play together when there is time. Living here is not so bad with each other.” (“Us Kids”) Determination and resilience also shine through. In “The Apple Crate,” she writes that her “library is a 1930 Essex…I lean back to admire my books lined up in an apple crate—“When that ’30 Essex was sold and she cried over the loss of her secret place, she reassured herself, “the next secret place I find is within myself.”

If Secret Lives frames one end of her life experience, the other bookend is Too Personal for Words-The Invisible Path of Aging. “What if we as elders,” Bonnie suggests, “could tap that boundless energy and young strength, still believing that all things are possible. It could be a way to mitigate the frustrations and fears accompanying aging.” (Introduction)Maldonado-TooPersonalForWords_coverSM

And tap both she does, in this collection of poems gently written about the “shock waves of inevitable change which confront elders.” (Introduction) Recognizing that aging is neither easy nor soft, Bonnie treats the whole aging thing as “the older woman [who] can remain an adventurous risk-taker. Dialogue is possible with the rock she can no longer dig and the mountain she no longer can climb.” (Introduction)

Bonnie reflects on her younger self in “Tattoos and Motorcycles,” as she observes a young woman with piercings and tattoos; “I once shot sparks on the Southern Cross, indestructible as you.” Of aging, Bonnie writes that “Growing up in the rural West hones survival skills…” which created a woman “tough and resilient, bermuda grass thriving in cracked concrete.” “Poses”; “Self Study.”

This poet does not avoid the shocks, pain and dislocation of growing older. She writes of crooked lipstick and looking like a faded photograph; of a nursing home with no familiar to hold a hand; oxygen tanks and a walker for support. Still, Bonnie finds the humor of an aging memory: “Though aware of the dangers of drifting, my mind enjoys its little trips…” (“Mindfulness”); and a shrinking body: “Like everything else, there isn’t as much of me as the last time I noticed.” (“Disappearing”)

Well. Looking at all the page markers I have placed in these books of poetry, I could go right on. I should leave some surprises for others to discover, some hidden notes of grace. I find myself reading the last poem in the volume, staring at the end pages, then turning back to the first poem to start reading again.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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