The Literary Life
New Silver City poet laureate Bonnie Maldonado explores the lyricism of ordinary people.
by Harry Williamson
If your idea of a poet creates images of being straight-laced and library-quiet, of snow-white clouds and perfect roses, think again.
Silver City's new poet laureate — named in April for a two-year term — might be a bit of a shock.
Bonnie Buckley Maldonado is pure grit and hard-wire. Her spirit and mettle are unyielding, even at age 80.
In her four books of poetry, Maldonado writes about places she has known and loved, especially those in northern Montana and southwest New Mexico. She writes about people, especially women, who are a lot like she is. People of extraordinary capacity and character and kindness and strength. Her red hair confirms a raw-boned Irish heritage.
"I'm influenced by the cadences of Irish voices, by Western music, by Indian singers and drummers," she says. "That was the music I grew up with."
Raised first in a fine home and then, thanks to a ruthless banker's shenanigans, in a sheepherder's wagon in far northern Montana, she felt comfortable living in a tent with her two sons while she cooked for hoards of backcountry tourists when she arrived in Grant County 53 years ago.
In a poem called "Self-Study," Maldonado writes:
Fragile does not
and forget delicate.
At one inch over five,
I am tough and resilient,
bermuda grass thriving
in cracked concrete.
As befitting her square-on approach to life, her favorite birthday gifts include a pearl-handled pistol at 18, and a chainsaw at 80.
Although she taught at Western New Mexico University for more than 30 years, retiring as a professor and dean emeritus in education and counseling, Maldonado avoids associating only with other academics.
"I want to be there with everyday people," she says. "I understand blue-collar workers, ordinary people, and they understand me."
She recalls a reader who wrote her a letter: "I was driving my pickup down a country road and reading your poems. I was crying so hard I had to stop."
Another note says, "On reading your poem about the ranch, I thought about my own grandmother's kitchen. I hadn't thought about that in years.
"That's where I want to be," Maldonado says. "These are wonderful things to me."
In "Green Hidey-Holes," she likens chasing a new poem to "pursuing a feral cat/with spiky fur/and wily moves":
in leafy hidey-holes
preferring the company
of ne'er-do-wells and drunks.
It loves a junkyard
of tangled metal
and rusty objects
It jerks me through
frigid prairie shacks,
and shifty boarding houses,
preferring hazardous places
and unspeakable incidents,
to marshmallow dresses
and nursery rhymes.
Much of what she writes are anecdotal, lyrical poems, often narratives of hardscrabble and hardworking people, her love of animals (especially one German Shepherd, now dead) of landscapes, spirits and human hearts.
"As poet laureate, I'd like more people in this area to get into Southwest literature," she says. "There is a great spirituality in Silver City. It draws people here, and it keeps them here. I think the literature and poetry of the area reflects that."
Jim Kelly, at the time a board member of the Southwest Festival of the Written Word (SFWW), came up with the idea to name a poet laureate for this area.
"I had just seen a story about a poet laureate in a little town, and I thought, ‘You know, we're supposed to be an arts community, and art is more than just hanging it on a wall or setting it on a table.' The literary arts are also extremely active here," he says. "After surveying cities large and small about their poet laureate programs, we put together what we'd like to have here in terms of qualification and duties."
The Pony Check
Russie on the Madison, 1960
Waiting for a chinook,
stove lids raddle,
a piece of chinking falls from a log wall.
Russie points to the small piece of paper
nailed between mantel and Henry rifle
"That there," she points, "is a pony check.
A red cowboy hat sits straight on her head
gray braids tied with grocery string,
old eyes sharp as obsidian bird points,
a Lucky Strike arranges ashes on her cooking.
"I never figured it was a check for cashing,
even when my old man went
and shot himself in the barn,
no money to bury him,
and look after Charlie.
Paid out by the US government
for one hundred Indian ponies,
sixty-eight cents per pony,
stolen from my Crow grandmother
near the Bighorn.
The way it was,
you couldn't count the riders
or the tribes
boiling down prairie slopes,
blazing over the blue and gold
of the Horse Soldiers.
In those white man stories of the Bighorn,
it isn't told that eagle feathers
touched clouds that day
and ponies flew."
— Bonnie Buckley Maldonado
Kelly says a SFWW selection committee, diversified in age and background, considered several local, published poets before finally deciding on Maldonado.
"She's a cheerleader for poetry as a living thing in our world today," Kelly says.
J.J. Wilson, writer-in-residence at Western New Mexico University, who chaired the committee, says the vote was unanimous in selecting Maldonado "because of her strong connection to the community and, of course, her tremendous skill as a poet."
Wilson adds, "Silver City's first poet laureate should exemplify the idea that ‘this is what a poet does' — how you live as a poet while trying to juggle a job and family — and Bonnie has clearly done that for a long, long time. She has a great deal of experience as a teacher, which we think will be invaluable as she quite literally spreads the word of poetry in Grant County."
Along with her long teaching experience, Maldonado also has a degree in counseling, with 40 years of community service work in mental health programs. For that she was inducted into the New Mexico Women's Hall of Fame, the only Grant County woman to be honored so far.
As poet laureate, Maldonado says, she is planning to go to local schools, such as Aldo Leopold High School, and ask if they would like her to sit down with interested students. She and other area poets and writers will also be reading at area businesses and other locations as part of SFWW's Random Acts of Literature. In addition, Maldonado has committed to compose up to four poems a year, at the request of Silver City Town Council and the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, and to keep a log of her activities and experiences as poet laureate.
"Another part of what I want to do is encourage writers who are afraid to show anyone their work," she says. "I have said that I'm not afraid of anything, but for years I was afraid my writing wasn't good enough."