Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson
Bone Map, Sara Eliza Johnson's debut collection of poetry -- selected by Martha Collins for the National Poetry Series -- cuts through like a well-sharpened knife. It leaves the reader stunned, impressed, even scared. Some of the imagery describes such intensity through its familiarity sliced by jarring juxtapositions. From "Märchen":
Lost in the forest one night, we find the body
of a wolf, its throat torn open,
the wound a cupful of rippling
black milk, where maggots curl star-white
in their glistening darkness.
the eyes hum with flies, which drone a joy
in the bones, the brain...
The poet already seems to be one-upping both Dante and Perrault (and even William Golding's Lord of the Flies from his eponymous novel). As these forbears would have us know, the forest or woods is a den of uncertainty, of darkness and starlight announcing the black milk of blood, the white balls of maggots. "Märchen," German for folktale, relooks at the aftermath of the story of Little Red Cap, as the incised wolf's body decays as unknowing, innocent meanderers come upon it. This leftover corpse due to the rescue of the girl inside showcases that there can be rebirth in the decayed, destroyed world around us -- rebirth at a cost.
Although voices float around, the stories here are grounded: "Keep talking. How did the story go? [...] Then the child climbed out of its belly / shining, without a name -- / with only a red cap by which to call her / and the animal guts in her hand." Reemerging like the phoenix is not a glorious business. With life comes death, and Johnson casts her canvas on such world ripped apart by war, uncertainty, and -- most intensely -- the destruction of nature.
In "Deer Rub," the narrator of the poem describes a male deer scraping its antlers against a tree. The bark of the tree is rubbed away, exposing it to the elements, and
The velvet that covers the antlers
unwinds into strips, like bandages.
The rain scratches at the deer's coat
as if trying to get inside, washes the antlers
of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones
of a saint in the crypt beneath the church.
This simple and almost holy image is torn apart with its counterpart: the ritual is over, the bark is stripped "while someplace in the world / a bomb strips away someone's skin. / The deer's mouth is stained with berries / of its own blood. Then, the deer is gone / and the tree left opened." Such an autophagous moment is beautiful -- berries of blood which playfully stain lips of the deer. But it is also ominous, via the somewhat haphazard remark of a bomb stripping skin like the deer stripping the velvet of his antlers -- how fast and devastatingly a world can change in a blink of an eye. And perhaps more impressive, how quickly one's perception of a moment can morph based on a comparative or a simile. Here, the poet truly gets the reader to appreciate the power of poetic techniques.
All of this feels summarized best in the poem that opens the collection, "Fable." It is an overture of the themes to come: the apocalypse of war, the dangerous position nature is in, the unfortunate world humans have created, and yet the majesty that pokes in ever so slightly from nature. The narrator wants to get closer to her partner, holding hands "until I can hear your bones / singing into mine / and feel the moon / roll through you."
Such oneness is shaken by the following fifteen lines which end the poem, an extended simile that compares this experience to a war-torn city where people see with their hands (think José Saramago's Blindness), where a newborn animal shakes off the rubble and debris from its body, where a boy watches this soft moment, and where the boy's father "not knowing / what his hands will be made to do / to other men, / places a hand on his head." There is hope in this world -- as the boy and newborn animal manifest, a slight acknowledged union between the two as they cross eyes -- and yet that is up against an impending brutality, evident by the dust on the animal and the man uncertain of his physical power. The simile goes on so long the reader will forget about the first stanza, which is the actual narrative of the poem. The poem's imagined comparative world engulfs that of the real. Such a feat is a triumph in execution.
It is difficult to sample a few lines of Johnson's poetry, as the entirety of the poems themselves feel necessary as a unit, much like Woolf's narratives in The Waves. But such unity makes for engaging reading, and a gripping, intelligent, and impressive debut.
Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson