Using narrative and whimsical elements developed in Mount Clutter (2002) and Primate Behavior (1997), a finalist for the National Book Award, the poems in Sarah Lindsay’s new book, Twigs and Knucklebones, are field guides to wholly imagined, anti-metaphorical playgrounds; they are experiments in inverted dramatic irony; they are elaborate tales you want to be true. Reading her book is like talking to your glamorous older brother: you want to believe his stories, to think he’s telling them just for you—though mostly you want him to keep talking.
The book is sectioned into three parts, “Flukes,” “The Kingdom of Nab,” and “Figs.” In “Flukes” Lindsay constructs fantastic worlds that refuse to submit to generalizing or metaphorical language. Folding in on themselves to find significance, Lindsay’s poems often end on a gesture that feels emotionally resonant, but doesn’t directly translate to our human condition. Like the protagonist in “Beyond Rubies,” who understands “a missionary in the field must never assume/ he knows what people value,” each of these poems explores a new system of meaning in which signs and causality still exist, but function outside our desire to make them significant. Take “Valhalla Burn Unit on the Moon Callisto,” where “The patients move with exquisite care,/ never too close to each other or to anything,/ sipping bottled oxygen”. The poem ends,
No atmosphere. That’s why the sky is black
all day, which does tend to bother the nurses,
the aides, the kitchen staff, the housekeeping crew,
all of whom are encouraged to miss their planet,
and when they cry, are to do so hunched
over sterile vials meant to preserve
the healing proteins found in common tears.
These poems assert their autonomy, their freedom from the traditional mores of narrative verse. Looking no further than their own machinery for meaning, they’re like wonderful artifacts—though they’re also preoccupied with omens and Morse code. Like the gift the natives present their missionary in “Beyond Rubies,” the poems in this section seem to worry they’ll be “a sackful of perfectly spherical rosy agates/ polished by the river. He was a millionaire,/ as long as he never went home.”
The book’s lengthy middle section, “The Kingdom of Nab,” deepens the first section’s foray into questions of significance. By far the most lovely and haunting in the book, the poems in this section explore the question of our human desire for meaning and permanence through a gorgeously constructed metaphor of archeology. Lindsay gives herself free rein in this section to become a bevy of characters. By taking archeology as her structure, she frees herself from the need to dig for usefulness in the signs and omens she unearths; in archeology, the significance and use is the mere fact of the sign, the femur, the shard, the monolith. We need no explanation other than, It exists. They lived here. I found it.
In this section scientists root around in the dust, uncovering evidence of an ancient civilization’s late, middle, and early periods. The perspective slides, often mid-poem, from present day to antiquity, stringing connections and paths of cause and effect throughout the section. In one poem, a young girl wearing a string of red beads thinks of marriage in a time of plague, and a few pages later, an intern at a dig site finds a few red beads. As we become more familiar with the names and places of this culture, we make our own connections: Oh, that’s why all their names begin with the same word, and there’s that image again of dust moving like a person. These poems effortlessly demonstrate our satisfaction at discovering life’s inner logic, and urge us to enjoy what we’re given to enjoy, as in the end of “An Old Joke,” a poem set in antiquity:
She lived sixteen years
before the fever closed on her,
and never spent one second
thinking about this,
or imagining an apprentice scholar
flown from another continent
and thinking about it for her.
On her last ordinary day
she laughed at a joke,
setting in motion
the air you just inhaled.
She licked honey
from her fingers,
and they didn’t taste like dust.
In the third section, “Figs,” Lindsay draws on more personal subjects—the death of family members, romantic love, getting older—and, like the poems in “Flukes,” these are satisfying closed circuits, reaching back into themselves for a concluding gesture. The shortest poems in the book are here, though they feel less weighty, less justified than the short poems in “The Kingdom of Nab,” because they aren’t part of a larger system of imagery and ideas.
However, poems like the superb “Mawson in a Crevasse” demonstrate Lindsay’s unerring ear and eye for detail; here, as in her finest poems, she gently interrogates the human condition while regaling us with unbelievable stories and facts. For humans aren’t like the squid in “Streamlined,” who have “Nothing to mislay or remember./ No wonder they go so fast through the press of the sea.” We do want our lives to mean something, and the speaker in Twigs and Knucklebones is acutely aware of the paradox of interrogating the life you’re trying to enjoy.
As one of Lindsay’s archeologists quips, “Excavation is destruction.” Though every poem in this book deserves attention, the best let us explore their rich textures and systems without reaching for wider significance, much like the soldier returning home in “Makris is Fallen”:
He drew near in a rank cloud, breathing hard,
to show her the gash in his thumb.
So she washed in five waters and went to their bed,
but he slept without moving,
still in his cloak and dust.