Each death we experience before our own marks us in its own way, but there is a special anguish when death silences a young life, one that should have held so much more growth, experience, and expression.
When I first came to Northfield, in 1985, I was fortunate to meet several times a student–a very gifted visual artist who worked part-time in the publications office, one floor down in Leighton Hall from my own office. Jennifer Anne Bonner, daughter of Robert E. Bonner, (of Carleton’s History Department) and Barbara Bonner (author, editor, and book seller) and sister to Tim Bonner, was a member of the Carleton class of 1989. My brief interactions with her on campus–and Barbara’s stories of her–dovetailed into my impression of a young woman filled with a zest for life. Born with congenital heart problems, she died following an unsuccessful heart transplant operation on December 16, 1988. She was just twenty-one years old, but she had lived every one of her years with a keen awareness of the wonder and fragility of life.
In January 1989, the month after she died, I wrote this elegy for Jenny. It was my attempt to convey the classical three-part structure of traditional elegy–general lament, specific praise for the deceased person, and consolation for the living–in a way that honors Jenny’s spirit as an artist and her continuing place in this community.
for Jennifer Bonner
I. The River
I listen daily for death, that great door slam,
to echo through the house of the body.
I know that a wild silence is coming,
without echoes to tell me what I am.
The dissolution of the blood and bone
does not come easily or slow enough,
(despite its long unfolding over years)
to catch the shape and color of our tears.
Tears fall abundantly from us all,
a slow-motion plummeting waterfall.
The water in the body seeks to join
a common cascade, like a silver shawl
flung on a chair back, like a brook’s quiet song.
The river that our dreams travel nightly along
towers finally over our heads, fills our ears,
and rages into silence, smashing fears.
When the wind has custody of the breath,
trembling sweetens into the roar of death.
All coalesces into one loud slam –
and the I dissolves to discover the am.
II. Halloween Costume
Above my desk this photograph of you is
hung in all your glory. Real gloria.
A strand of tiny electric lights winds about
your slim body, Jennifer. Your right hand,
like the nightly pulse of the lighthouse,
flashes light back at the camera lens while
your arms create your own, hard-won halo.
That October, while you contemplated your heart,
not knowing if it would last, you remembered to live
in the moment. And so for Halloween you became
One Thousand Points of Light, scoffing at a candidate’s
rhetoric but also redeeming it, flinging
a constellation of courage against the growing dark.
III. Saying Grace
despite your father’s daily grief,
your mother’s bent head,
your empty place at the table still
A short time later, the family and friends of Jenny worked with Carleton College to create a sculpture garden in front of Boliou, the art and art history building where she flourished. Designed by Carleton faculty member and sculptor Ray Jacobson, the Jennifer Bonner Memorial Garden balances the sense of time and timelessness, the intertwined mysteries of nature and art, that reflect Jenny’s own spirit. Below are a few photographs I took this past week.
Included on the memorial stele is the epigraph Succisa Virescit, two words drawn from the ancient art of viniculture and encapsulating the mystery of transformation. Translated literally, it reads “Having been cut down, it flourishes.” Referring to the literal cultivation of a grape vine by careful and timely pruning, it also suggests the ways in which we each flourish non-corporeally–in art and memory and cherished forms and images and shared stories–long after death cuts short our life.
For me this offers a cold, but very real comfort.
When I think about how Northfield and its people have influenced my own life as an artist, no one comes to mind more quickly than Patsy Dew. A person of many talents–theater, photography, poetry, and fiber arts–she is also a legendarily successful arts administrator. Patsy would make any place she lived a better place. Luckily for us, she has deep Northfield roots–we see her mark every day in the strong programs of the Northfield Arts Guild and at the Northfield Senior Center, as well as in those gifts from her personal creativity that she shares publically.
In 2014, Patsy became the fifth individual named as a Northfield Living Treasure. (She followed Ray Jacobsen, Myrna Johnson, Cora Scholz,and Paul Niemisto, and was succeeded in 2015 by DeWayne and Theo Wee, and this year by Jan Shoger. A celebration in honor of Shoger will be held at the Grand Event Center on Thursday, January 28, 2016 at 7:00 p.m.)
About fifteen years ago, Patsy and I discovered that we were both born in Kalamazoo, Michigan; indeed, I subsequently learned that her father, Dr. Dew, was my first pediatrician! We both take inspiration from the people, places, history, and possibilities offered by life in Northfield. I will always be grateful to Patsy for giving me the courage to move from simply taking photos to sharing them more publicly, and for joining with me for five fun years (2005 to 2009) in a joint enterprise called Kalafield Images. Here is one of our jointly produced posters, a downtown blast-from-the-recent past:
Below, with Patsy’s permission, I have showcased some of her wonderful images and a poem. Further below, I have printed a villanelle that I wrote in her honor and read at the 2014 Living Treasures celebration, prefaced by the remarks from that evening.
Be sure to check out Patsy’s website for more images.
As talented with language as she is with images and stage craft, here is a recent poem of Patsy’s:
A Simpler Life
The sky is lightening.
I can tell, even though the loden curtains are drawn.
I roll away from the window, luxuriating in the chrysalis-covers.
Sandpaper eyes. Sleep still calls to muscles in my feet, shoulders, calves and thighs. My neck is too weak to hold my heavy head.
This caterpillar knows her time has not yet come. Let me linger as a bronze liquid a bit longer. Maybe another week or so.
Then I’ll roll back the smooth green covers and emerge in unrecognizable form, with long legs, a graceful dancer.
You’ll marvel at my beauty as I soar away, without a care in the world.
My remarks at the 2014 celebration of Patsy Dew’s Living Treasure Award
As I considered this occasion, two thoughts kept recurring. One is how creative and joyful problem-solving is the essence of art. The other is how creativity in one area spills over into other areas, making us more resilient and productive. When we respond as artists, we solve our own problems in exciting new ways that enrich our community.
I also thought how well Patsy exemplifies the spirit of this award. She is part of the bed rock of this arts town.
Patsy and I have shared some creative adventures, and, like everyone here, I have seen her in action. Some years ago, for example, she fell off her bike and broke her arm. This meant she couldn’t hold her camera, which required two hands. Well, she didn’t complain, and she didn’t sit on the sidelines for six weeks, either. Instead she got on the internet, researched options, and before the week was out had a small camera with an excellent lens that she could operate with one hand. She proceeded to take beautiful photographs with that camera. In fact, she inspired me to get one.
So, with these two tenacious thoughts about art and Patsy–multi-faceted creativity and resilient problem-solving–I decided to try a villanelle for this evening. This is a fun but technically tricky form that operates on two rhymes and two repeated lines (with a few variations for interest). Here is the heartfelt result.
Patsy, this is for you.
Living Treasure Tribute: for Patsy
There’s very little Patsy Dew can’t do.
We’ve gathered here to sing our songs of praise
because she shares her artist’s point of view
with us. She’s a Northfielder through and through.
From NAG to Defeat of Jesse James Days,
there isn’t much that Patsy Dew can’t do.
She made a gallery at the Senior Center, too.
She’s part of Northfield, and we’re glad she stays.
She always brings an artist’s point of view.
She keeps exploring, finding something new—
new insights made by pens or lens or plays.
Is there anything that Patsy Dew can’t do?
She champions ideas and sees them through.
In her, the ‘Arts Town’ fire is a blaze!
She always holds an artist’s point of view.
Everyone here knows what I say is true:
Her talents shine; her kindnesses amaze.
Let’s celebrate all Patsy Dew can do.
Let’s thank her for her artist’s point of view.
January 16, 2014
Patsy continues to be an inspiration to those who, like me, who are fortunate to know her, and a benefactor to all Northfield through the many ways she has strengthened the fiber of the arts community. One last example: here is an unposed portrait she took of me with Julia in 2007, while we were sharing time in our booth at the Northfield Arts Guild’s Riverwalk Art Fair.
We are all of us here very fortunate to live in a vibrant Arts Town, with an active Arts and Culture Commission to help the city’s individuals and groups enjoy this important part of life. And we are awfully lucky to have a parade of dedicated and talented people who serve us all, and who richly deserve to be honored as Living Treasures.