By Kim Bridgford

White Violet Press. 98 pp.

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Reviewed by Kelly McQuain

Picking up a poetry volume titled

Bully Pulpit

, you might expect a fair amount of sermonizing, given the book's focus on victimization.

Kim Bridgford's collection rails with anticipated gusto; it provides balm to the injured and lashes back at the guilty, stopping just short of marching them behind the barn to cut their own switch.

Bridgford subdivides bullying into three distinct spheres: Public, Private, and Mythological.

Public opens with a poem, "Before Jumping Off the Bridge," that channels the voice of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi moments before he took his own life. The poem does more than remind us of the webcam bullying that preceded Clementi's suicide. Its evocative allusions - to Apollo, god of light, to poetry, to the music Clementi, a violinist, so loved, and to an "unbitten apple" with its implications of innocence, sin, and costly knowledge - make a strong opening salvo connecting contemporary bullying to myths and stories of the past.

Other poems pluck symbols from nature. "Mobbing" compares the behavior of vicious girls to the way "Birds gather, and they peck, and they attack, / to stay within the safety of the flock" - a fitting metaphor for the emotional bullying that led teenager Phoebe Prince to hang herself in Massachusetts in 2010.

Grim stuff, and Bridgford wisely offsets it with poems that pay homage to survivors. "Sit" depicts Rosa Parks' act of noncompliance on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, transforming "tears of rage" into "tears of reconciliation" that "heal the nation."

The aforementioned poems are all sonnets. While Bully Pulpit includes free verse and a number of villanelles, it's the sonnet form that dominates and builds on Bridgford's earlier collections, like 2007's In the Extreme: Sonnets About World Records. A formalist at heart, Bridgford nevertheless avoids strict adherence to iambic pentameter and the octave/sestet conventions that govern traditional English iterations of the form. She plays with end rhyme, too, riffing with virtuosity on the arrangement of her pairings. Her work is infused with sonic constructions that many contemporary poets don't dare.

The book's second sphere, Private, positions a speaker in tune with Bridgford's personal history and worldview. "Genealogy" explores the Bridgford family name, along with the sacrifices of generations past. In "Commandments," Bridgford, director of the West Chester University Poetry Center, conflates Old Testament patriarchy with academic politics and the snakes in the ivy. The discursiveness of the free verse is a fitting match to her rumination. In "Commandments," she posits the question of the hour: "When the tablets are broken, what do you do?/ Disappear or shine?"

Such questions probe society's culpability for bullying. When our commandments are stripped away, when no watchful eye patrols the playground, what are we in danger of becoming?

The last half of Bridgford's book explores the Mythological sphere, teasing out answers by reworking famous stories, plays, and films as she visits the likes of Snow White, Persephone, and Norma Desmond, as well as enough characters from Shakespeare to occupy an entire season at the Globe.

When Bridgford scratches at evil's origins, her nails turn up new dirt and her collection arrives at its most memorable moments: how dislike snowballs into hate, how cruelty so easily goes viral in the Internet age - and the blamelessness that crowds hide behind when no single hand is guilty.

Bridgford dramatizes this in "The Axe," a sonnet from the Snow White suite, perhaps the best in the collection. The blade of the woodsman tasked with Snow White's execution abdicates responsibility for the things it kills, stating, "as [a mere] instrument, I bear no trace of sin." Too bad people cannot say the same.