Today, I spent another blissful, contemplative day absorbed in poetry. The book was Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson (Milkweed, 2014), and it was full of glistening gore—but Johnson is more haruspex than butcher, and the still-warm insides of things have stories to tell about the universe and our place in it.
The book was a National Poetry Series selection of Martha Collins, who offered a telling blurb on the back cover: “The territory mapped in this gorgeous book is wracked by violence and loss, with the bones and viscera of the living and dead laying claim to our attention.” As Collins goes on to note, “A fierce beauty emerges … transforming darkness as well as light.”
And that darkness-and-light juxtaposition is another theme of Johnson’s—and there are moons and wolves and bees, just like a book of horrifying fairy tales. Everything combines to make a gripping read, but also a thought-provoking one that infected me with the awful regret you sometimes get when you finish a book that was telling you some of the answers you didn’t know you needed.
When I read for the daily Poem366 feature, my habit is to underline or highlight the parts I really admire so that I can share selectively. I don’t always have time to do justice to the work I love to do as a reader (and the work one has to do as a reviewer), which is to really track the poet’s project—the repeated imagery, the diction, the rhetoric, the syntax—and look for patterns that help to convey the poet’s meaning in a very subtle way.
With a daily project, the work I always do is read an entire collection by a poet. If the work is puzzling, I might consult online reviews or interviews, or I might study the press kit. In general, I can handle a bunch of poems. But some collections are ambitious and do so much more than just gather some nice poems into a binding, and this is certainly true for Johnson. Working quickly, I run the risk of missing out on something essential, so I do a little bit of study.
And I also re-read—maybe not the whole book, but key parts of it. I devote some time before writing to a bit of meditation on what I’ve experienced, and then I jump in—have a conversation about poetry. That’s a pleasure, and one that I wish I could have face to face with everyone who reads these things. With wine. May as well dream big.
With Johnson’s book, it’s a little funny to flip back through and look for those gems I highlighted, because almost every page has a marking—underlines, brackets, hearts, stars. It’s kind of like when I was a first-year student in college, and never before had I been invited to write in a book. But I owned those books, and I read them word for word, and with my brand new highlighter pens, I highlighted, by damn. And then I had to contend with entire pages that were fully highlighted but for the odd “the” or the occasional coordinating conjunction. Pro-tip: When everything is highlighted, only the unhighlighted stuff is truly highlighted, so when it was time to study, the parts that stuck out were “the” and “and” and “but.” It’s a very good thing I had an unusually good memory (then).
A favorite poem of mine is “When There Is Burning Instead,” which references a very grim Bible passage, Isaiah 3:24:
Instead of fragrance there will be a stench;
instead of a sash, a rope;
instead of well-dressed hair, baldness;
instead of fine clothing, sackcloth;
instead of beauty, branding.
That’s not Johnson; that’s Isaiah, or King Hezekiah, or whoever wrote that Old Testament book. But Johnson’s work dovetails with that passage when she imagines wolves coming down to the city.
They will compass about me
where I lie. They will curiously graze
their teeth against my cheek
and lick the scrape on my hand
and I will not be afraid of them
because my blood is bitter
and my marrow rancid
and my skin is a linen of bees
and my tongue is split
into two songs, two branches
that grow soured figs
up through the charred
rubble of my throat. […]
That’s what I’m talking about. So many of Johnson’s poems have this terrible architecture, or, more accurately, geography, since the book is called Bone Map. She really seems to be examining and weighing the viscera she encounters, looking for signs, and she reports on the results of her haruspicy.
Celestial bodies also have a place in the book, as in “Parable of the Flood.” She writes, “Your hands float like the moons of two planets // orbiting a dead sun: cold islands gone numb.” Later in the poem she continues,
You just stand there, like a tongue without a mouth
to control it. The boatwright asks you to undress
and lie on the ground. He would like your skull
to light the way, your pulse to turn the engine blades,
your eye to focus the telescope lens. The boatwright
wants to break your throat into a luminous creaking.
I failed to mention that boats and navigation are another key to understanding the book, which seems to suggest that we can travel from body to body, whether that body is fleshy or astral, and some vessel can get us there.
A good vessel to try is Johnson’s book, which fascinates, and which I must revisit soon. It’s already a favorite.