Play Those Funky Banjos: Breakdown: Banjo Poems by Dave Bonta

Robbi Nester

Breakdown Banjo CoverThe making of poetry is a serious sort of game, unfolding on its small stage for an audience of those who love language intensely and enjoy watching it jump through cleverly-made hoops.


Dave Bonta’s chapbook Breakdown: Banjo Poems, co-winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize and published by The Seven Kitchens Press in 2013, constitutes just such a feat of language.


In addition, consisting of twenty-six poems musing on the history of the banjo, the chapbook also occasions a discussion of American history and culture.


In fact, this collection poses as a sermon of sorts, “the one true book of matches” (“The Silent Banjo”), an effort to reform our understanding of the banjo in American culture.


We think of banjos as belonging to the world of the American South, the chosen instrument of bluegrass and folk music. But like so much in American culture, this kind of music and the instrument used to play it has its roots in Africa and the African-Americans who were brought over as slaves.


Yet, unfortunately, this African import and the music played on it has taken on for us in the United States the coloration of parochialism and even racism. After all, it was the instrument of choice in minstrel shows, played in parodic blackface.


Even divorced from these racial overtones, it may be hard to take this instrument seriously. We might even agree with Bonta’s playful admonition that “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise / than for a man to hear the music of banjos” (“Banjo Proverbs”).


As these poems reveal though, if we take this view of the banjo, we have judged the parody without a clear understanding of its source. By discounting this history, we have further undermined the people the minstrel shows sought to mock.


In Africa, banjos were fashioned from gourds attached to a long stalk, often with covers made of animal skins. The slaves found the materials as available here as they had been in their home countries. And the music they made allowed them to speak in ways their status as slaves would otherwise forbid.


The banjo and the music they made with it had a subversive power that their masters could not squelch. Slaves could “put the banjo” on them, “[composing] a cutting satire / with a rollicking tune” too infectious to quell (“The Dueling Banjo”).


Thus, the unassuming banjo is revealed here as a preserver of life (“Medicine Show 1”) and, in another context, “vital mental medicine” (“Medicine Show 5: Shackleton’s Banjo”).


Though we may have not appreciated the banjo’s significance or much of the music that it has produced, this brief collection helps us to understand what we have been missing, remarking that “Rare as an heirloom, / particular as an orchid, / miraculous as spring water / flowing from a tap / and durable as a razor strop / is the banjo player’s ear” (“Out of Tune”).


Though the instrument may be homely and simple, like the water we get from the tap or other tools of our everyday lives, it nevertheless possesses meaning and importance, if we bother to see it for what it is.


Bonta has made a career of revealing the power of other humble implements in his previous work. For example, his book Odes to Tools, published by Phoenician Press in 2010, the poet considers the hammer, plane, and other instruments of labor in a way that will make it impossible for one to regard them with indifference.


Indeed, to read this writer’s poetry, his blogs, and all the other works of his busy hands is to see the world in an entirely new way.


Take the extra trouble to seek out the publisher’s website and order a copy of this collection, which is not available on Amazon. It is worth the effort.


Breakdown Banjo Poems
By Dave Bonta
Seven Kitchens Press, 2013


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