by Sarah Rose Nordgren
University of Pittsburgh Press, 96 pp. $15.95
Prefacing a reading last year, Sarah Rose Nordgren mentioned her poems had a recurring theme of an absent infant. And indeed, many poems in her first book, Best Bones (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), involve a baby who has died, or has not yet been born, or who never existed. The speakers dealing with this and other losses include Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, the little blonde girl, the shepherd, and the ghost, characters and themes that have led to comparisons to fables. Much like fables, these poems often enact startling transformations, as in the many poems whose graves become gardens. But where fables moralize, these poems’ transformations work to control and maintain the transitional space, whether that space is dirt, a home, or a self.
Familiar explorations of merging and emerging identity run throughout the book, but many speakers push those boundaries as they speak from their own instabilities. Consider this image in “Letter from a New England Girl,” whose speaker explains,
What was hunted haunts my body:
the fingernails growing in the mouth
of a whale. The picket fence was built
around my waist to dam the miniature
ocean my organs swim.
Society’s repression and control over women is a clear theme here. However, the imagery transforms down a new path and the moral judgment slips away, leaving the poem’s interpretation open. And many of these pieces reach past themes of social judgment. Consider the speaker in “The Monastery,” who imagines her heart as an enclosed yard where a cow grazes, explaining that her feet were
fragile beneath their leather, legs
heavy as pillars, and in my head
the hen whose beak can hold
just one pearl at a time.
By digging deeper into her own imagery, this speaker paradoxically controls her transformation into a bride of Christ. The assonance of “feet” and “beneath” followed by “heavy,” “hen,” and “beak,” not to mention the alliteration, creates a tight sonic mesh, in which “pearl” feels like a secret truth borne from the speaker’s burrowing into herself.
As in “The Monastery,” this control comes at the expense of self, signaled through frequent images of masks, skins, and clothing. Take “The Artist’s Boy,” in which everything in the child’s room takes on another life except for his “eyes/ that seem but painted on his eyes.” A deep sense of duty and work ethic also betrays identity, as in the poem “Laying the Cloth, Et Cetera,” whose speaker explains the servant’s tasks:
After dinner, you dig coal
from your chest with a grapefruit spoon
and your eyes scour twenty dirty plates…
…If you keep
this up, someday your soul will be
as handsomely arranged as the pantry.
Work as a catalyst for transformation—whether positive or not—runs parallel to the theme of digging into the self to find control. Many other themes also thread through this book: art’s often destructive role in life, the influence and construction of family and home, how easily desire leads us from ourselves, the relationship between the living and the dead.
Many poems navigate this swirl beautifully through sudden turns from fable to reality. In “Home,” the speaker watches two children play house outside: “The little girl won’t speak/ to the boy.” But the speaker ends wondering,
…could I keep
the two of them smoldering here as they are,
she with her quiet fury
and he with his dream of money?
By transposing adulthood onto these children, the speaker maintains both the fable and reality in jarring synchrony. A poem that controls this balance playfully is “Blackfly,” whose tiny buzzing speaker seems to apologize to her farmer for
to be your wifey in the summertime.
I spend my money hovering, your straw-covered
head my sun
Your bigness turns me on. When the meat
of your hand grazes my behind, I long
to scream my sweet alarm, to drive you into
another frenzy of planting.
While these speakers find control in balancing fable and reality, they struggle to balance self in the face of intimacy. The final poem in the book, “Blue Whale,” touches on a desire for unity; however, the speaker sees the depths a whale dives to as fearsome, saying,
All there is is nothing
All our selves without a core continuous
White potato heavy with dirt
It hurts to watch it sinking
implying that unity is a weighty and dangerous state of affairs. The speaker yearns to be “A mansion steering itself,” intentionally moving through the world, not alive, not dead. And what else is a relationship, a family, or a self? An intention we signal with masks, sticks, and money. As these speakers well know, to stop signaling is to sink into abstraction, but to fully commit is to forget who we really are: people lost in-between. Best Bones maps out the voices and shapes that paradoxical loss and freedom can take.