Pianos and Poems: Oni Buchanan's Must a Violence

John Gibbs

must a violenceIf these poems were not bound together within a single collection, I might be inclined to think they were written by three, four, maybe even five different poets. Such is the experience of reading Must a Violence, Oni Buchanan's third collection of poems. Buchanan has successfully managed to string together a brave sampling of disparate voices, forming a comprehensive study of humans' direct effect on the natural world. "Political" is not the right way to describe this collection, yet her poems do possess a definite call-for-action quality; their aim is to instill social awareness within readers. A large bulk of the poems in Must a Violence overtly confront society's interaction with animals, often critically: "how can it be / that we could deign to offer our / 'Blessing of the Animals' to a population / ravaged by our greed" (72). Buchanan holds a mirror up to our society and invites us to contemplate the richness of the environment in which we have always been encompassed.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a performing concert pianist, Buchanan's creative endeavors include collaborations with poet Jon Woodward, which explore the boundary between the tradition of the written word and music composition. Likewise, her poetry exists within the realm of the aural experience and is filled with sonority. You do not have to play in an orchestra or know who Gabriel Fauré is to understand that Buchanan brings the same ear to the page as she does the piano bench. Her poems exist within a world that consistently listens to the sounds it makes. Buchanan pairs sound with metaphor in "I Heard Her Long Hair Making Five Sounds":

The length of her hair itself began to sound, or I
began to hear its presence underneath, sounding
as the strings of an instrument
would sound if they were left strung aloft
in a wide field, or hung in a desert, left
to be blown on, or over, blown through
by a passing wind (40)

The comparison between hair and a musical instrument feels quite natural within this poem, yet it also seems to never have existed before. The heightened sensitivity to everyday events such as this permeate the text. Buchanan directs our ear almost anywhere, asking us to pay attention to the music found within hair, rain, our bodies, and even within pigs.

At the heart of this collection is the ambitious, sixteen-page poem entitled, "Little Pig," which comprises the entire third section. On the surface level, the poem is an extended exploration of a typical day in the life of a pig. Mundane as that may seem, Buchanan breathes life into the poem by directly addressing this little pig, continually encouraging it to indulge in its own pig-lifestyle. We get lost in the poem's many musings. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the poem is not just about a pig, but about people and society, as well. We are suddenly put on the stand to account for our treatment of animals. Lines such as, "All pigs need a place / that is all their own, where nobody / can reach in and drag them out" or "A Little Pig is what we should / aspire to be in our own dull and compromised / minds" do well to question the role of pigs in most people's minds as a mere breakfast side (75, 68). Buchanan asks us to consider what we are losing in this misguided perception of animals and how that affects every species on the planet.

The contrast between "Little Pig" and the title poem, which immediately follows in the sequence, is abrupt to say the least. It is as if it were written in a lost, rhetorical language. The repetitive nature of the poem reexamines the meaning and "violence" latent within certain words.

Must a violence be administered
Must a violence be enacted upon
Must a violence be had to oneself
Must a violence be endured
Must an unanticipated violence
Must a violence beyond one's control (79)

The poem continues to unravel in this fashion, reinventing itself along the way. It slowly begins to feel more like an ancient prayer and less like a poem written today. In fact, it operates more successfully as a spoken-word poem rather than a static poem trapped on the page. The poem's simplistic construction helps us to grapple with the largeness of its undertaking. We are afforded time to wander around in the poem's lines and to discover the subtle nuance embedded within each one. Each line is a subtle departure from the line which preceded it, moving the poem into new territory.

Buchanan also experiments with the visual aspects of poetry in this collection. The poems "Palais de Mari" and "Selection" spread themselves across the page, utilizing white space and margins. Of course, one reads these poems from left to right; however, the lines also appear to fall stepwise down the page, tempting us to read the poem diagonally as well. One recalls the visual similarity to sheet music and the contours of polyphonic voices, which turns the poem into a fugue of language. Both poems are inevitably boxed in by the constraint of the page, but simultaneously celebrate their newfound form. Buchanan utilizes multiple styles of poetry within her work and her ability to cover all angles has been clearly demonstrated.

It seems rare to have such an accomplished writer and musician occupying the same body, even though it seems to make sense. So many poets rejoice and relish, sometimes quite self-indulgently, in the sounds of language. For Buchanan, it appears to come naturally. Her capabilities as a musician further develop her skills as an artisan of language, and vise versa. While reading these poems, I found it helpful to listen to recordings of Buchanan in recital. Too often these arts exist solely within their own worlds. So when someone comes along who is talented and brave enough to reinstate the dialogue between the two, we should all stop for a moment and listen.


Must a Violence
By Oni Buchanan
University Of Iowa Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-1609381295


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