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Finding the Words to Talk About the Death of a Child


Wednesday’s Fresh Air,
featured a poet named Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno who has recently released her first collection of poetry called Slamming Open the Door that is getting a great deal of well- deserved attention.

In 2003, the lives of Kathleen Bonanno and her husband plunged into a life-shattering tragedy that was very similar to the one that has overtaken Greg Burk and Deborah Drooz, the parents of Lily Burk.

2003 was when Kathleen’s daughter Leidy Bonanno was found dead in her apartment, strangled with a telephone cord by an ex-boyfriend. The poems in Slamming Open the Door chronicle Leidy’s murder and each step of the aftermath.

The work is almost unbearable to read—or to hear read, as Bonanno does on the show—but it also shimmers with jagged-edged beauty, courage and power. The poems are rageful. Drenched in the deepest kind of grief. Totally cleansing.

It was actually WLA commenter Woody who brought the show and Bonanno’s poetry to my attention. And, in the last comment thread, he has written more eloquently about the broadcast than I have.

I was hesitant to post about this book—for obvious reasons. Yet the fearful symmetry was difficult to ignore. And I judged the poems might, for some, offer an unlikely form of comfort.

I leave you to listen and make up your own mind.

Here is the link.

And here are five of the poems. Be sure to read the last one.

Death Barged In

In his Russian greatcoat,
slamming open the door
with an unpardonable bang,
and he has been here ever since.

He changes everything,
rearranges the furniture,
his hand hovers
by the phone;
he will answer now, he says;
he will be the answer.

Tonight he sits down to dinner
at the head of the table
as we eat, mute;
later, he climbs into bed
between us.

Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
clamping two
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
From now on,
you write about me.

What People Give You

Long-faced irises. Mums.
Pink roses and white roses
and giant sunflowers,
and hundreds of daisies.

Fruit baskets with muscular pears,
and water crackers and tiny jams
and the steady march of casseroles.
And money,
people give money these days.

Cards, of course:
the Madonna, wise
and sad just for you,
Chinese cherry blossoms,
sunsets and moonscapes,
and dragonflies for transcendence.

People stand by your sink
and offer up their pain:
Did you know I lost a baby once,
or My eldest son was killed,
or My mother died two months ago.

People are good.
They file into your cartoon house
until it bows at the seams;
they give you every
except your daughter back.


Don’t pity me:
I was too lazy to walk
up the stairs
to tuck her in at night.

When I brushed her hair
I pulled hard
on purpose.

And always
the sharp,
plaintive edge
on the rim
of the spoon
of my giving.


An ant rears its front legs,
its rosary-bead parts
startling and black,
but I do not see it.

You name it.
I cannot see
what she can
not see.

Poem About Light

You can try to strangle light:
use your hands and think
you’ve found the throat of it,
but you haven’t.
You could use a rope or a garrote
or a telephone cord,
but the light, amorphous, implacable,
will make a fool of you in the end.

You could make it your mission
to shut it out forever,
to crouch in the dark,
the blinds pulled tight—

still, in the morning,
a gleaming little ray will betray you, poking
its optimistic finger
through a corner of the blind,
and then more light,
clever, nervy, impossible,
spilling out from the crevices
warming the shade.

This is the stubborn sun,
choosing to rise,
like it did yesterday,
like it will tomorrow.
You have nothing to do with it.
The sun makes its own history;
light has its way



  • Celeste, once again I have to disagree with you. You wrote, “(Woody) has written more eloquently about the broadcast than I have.” Let’s compare.

    Celeste earlier: I just read the Bonanno poems posted at the NPR link. They’re completely astonishing. Completely. Rageful. Drenched in the deepest kind of grief. Totally cleansing.
    Woody: That was interesting.

    You were being extra kind, but it seems as if it wouldn’t hurt for me to attend Bennington College next year.

    But, keep the focus on the tragedy and healing.

    I was struck by comments in the previous post about others’ losses…Ed Padgett’s shared, heartfelt feelings about his son being killed and poplockerone’s thoughts about the extended affects of a murder.

    Poplockerone: The hard part about losing someone is not that your going to miss them but that your expectations about them are taken away, totally wiped away from you. Lily’s parents will never get to see their daughter get married or have children. So, Charles Samuel did not only take away one life but he took away ten folds of generations. He took away the future. He just basically decided to snatched away an entire lineage of Burks from the face of this earth. He decided to play God almighty.

    But, no matter how eloquent words may be, the eyes of a parent of a dead child expresses their pain best.

  • “it wouldn’t hurt for me to attend Bennington College next year”

    I’m for giving Woody entrance to Bennington solely on Affirmative Action diversity grounds – no more questions asked about SATs or getting through English classes via Classics Illustrated – and I’m for offering him a government Pell grant to help with the tuition. Or maybe a special MacArthur Fellowship for…uh…special needs. I’d also like to personally donate $10,000 to a Bennington college scholarship fund of Celeste’s choice for the documentary film rights.

  • What happened to Lily Burk was sad and unfortunate. Robbery and murder is unacceptable in any society. Unfortunately, however, both are going to increase as the economy gets worse. The fact that he had her go to all of those ATM machines tells me that this was a robbery, and not just an attack/rape, etc. There are a lot of Lily Burks out there. In Compton, Inglewood, South Central, Long Beach, East LA, surrounding suburbs..innocent victims of mad criminals perfectly willing to spare a life just to get a buck. The fact that places like Silver Lake are losing people to this “California quicksand” (as Ice Cube calls it) is a sign that our economic crisis is now turning areas that were once safe and trendy into ghettos, too. That’s what happens in a Depression. A lot of people wonder…what will a depression look like? You don’t need a history book. Just drive down Central Avenue, from the 10 freeway all the way into Compton, and that’s what it will look like. But it will look like that everywhere (rich fortresses excluded), as opposed to just the areas designated to be ghettos either by white flight (west side of south central, compton, the many east county suburbs turned barrios) or by architectural design (projects on east side of South Central, Hazard in Boyle Heights, etc.). These sick people like the guy who attacked Burk need to be imprisoned for life, at the very least. Most of us agree there. But until we stop pretending that economic conditions dont’ play a role in these types of crimes, and pretty much most violent crime in general, we’re not going to get anywhere in regards to a long term solution to this madness.

  • Bonnano lives in PA, so it might be tough for her to be LA’s poet laureate.

    But what to make of the footage of Lily Burk and Samuels walking around Little Tokyo? I could have passed them on the street.

  • Who said it was anything but a robbery, Triumph, and “not just an attack, rape, etc.”? It’s been fairly apparent from the very first reports that Samuels was attempting to rob Miss Burke and I don’t believe (unless I missed it somewhere) that anyone has tried to suggest otherwise.

    And what’s with the straw man about the economy that you attempt to wedge into the discussion? Read the reports carefully; Samuels was on a four-hour leave from a halfway house for drug offenders. When he was arrested on unrelated charges he was in possession of a crack pipe and a can of beer in a paper bag. You don’t need a degree in criminology to figure out that the perp was looking for cash to score a high. Yes, our economic crisis is dire. I will give you that. But I don’t think the economy was much of a factor at play here.

  • Triumph, or Mr. T, whatever … stop your psychosomatic behavior now. Your episodes of “contagious fear” are infantile at best. Get a grip, Jr.

  • I’m not one for appreciating poetry.

    But that stuff is good, and powerful, and speaks amazingly well.

    I am in awe.

    I hope it helps, bleak as it is.

  • I felt a little of that awe too, Moore. I wondered at the command of meter, and languished in the blanket of peace the words brought from their form. It lasted me all of 10 minutes (I don’t digest/assimilate quickly).. Then I came back to the reality of this brutal taking of a life, should I call it what it is? An erasure of a jewel? I project in my image/mind the horror those parents feel. How they’re keeping a grievingly, peaceful exterior yet bellowing shrieks in their once quiet places.
    I see the kind of empathy I feel for these parents exemplified with all these heartfelt comments here. We’ve reached, albeit temporarily a place where there’s peace in this place. The kind of rhythmn that might someday make our lives hum like a fine tuned motor. A place where guys like samuels even will have clearer choices, because the act he perpetrated won’t even be in the equation. Think it’ll happen? Me either… So we grieve..

  • Jacob, I don’t know how many studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between poverty and drug use. If you want to shun the efforts of every one of them by assuming there’s no such connection, suit yourself. I choose not to. Academia may not be perfect, but I’ll take it over stubborn and blind conviction. The only two points I wanted to make, and I stand by them, are that 1) LA’s poor communities have seen several Lily Burks meet grim fates in recent years, and 2) the economic crisis will only bring us more tragedies like this. BTW, I didn’t accuse anyone of believing anything, so I don’t know why you’re being defensive.

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