Bone of My Bone, Nicole Rollender
Blood Pudding Press, 2015.
“Bone of My Bone”by Nicole Rollender is one of three 2015 chapbook contest winners with Blood Pudding Press. The book is tangibly pleasurable, from the artwork to the lacy binding – one hundred percent objet d’art. It’s a meaningful contrast to the poems within; poems that are bodily rooted in the physical world, but push against the metaphysical as a thematic motif of the Liturgy of the Hours. “Bone of My Bone” is an anxious reckoning of grief and hope, of motherhood and the body, in a way that is reminiscent of Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris”. Rollender’s work inhabits a physical space, but never stops circling around the question of what exists after the body does not.
“We speak the language of departure”, Rollender writes in the poem “Disassembling”. This is the engine powering the poems. The juxtaposition between loneliness and legacy permeates these pieces, particularly in the book’s title poem, “Bone of My Bone”:
"The unhurried light is dying, drunken
bees dropping into water, isn't it? My body is made
from these flat-footed women – when I step
outside not knowing where I'm headed, one of them wakes
from her dream of owls calling and hisses,
We created you from what we saved."
The effect of the couplets in this poem is a slowed reading, with the enjambed lines creating uncomfortable pauses. It feels conscious. It feels biblical and familial. The speaker grapples with her own creation, and the subsequent birth of her children. The body is gruesome, especially in its decay, but Rollender wrangles this gore into “a giant star’s last open into brilliance.” The waxy and dead skin of her grandmother is given a second life in the speaker’s skin and the Frankenstein effect is a reconciliation. We are biologically part and parcel the women that came before us, but it is more than that for the speaker. “How do I measure the body’s gardens/from within its bone fences?” Where do we come from and where do we go? The very monastic nature of a prayer is that it happens internally, while reaching externally. This poem finds itself in its own legacy, in a reaching out, but the reader is never unaware of the loneliness that charges the very questions Rollender asks. The play between loneliness and legacy is compellingly human.
The other trope of loss is deftly woven throughout these pieces and sometimes presents as the mythic, or comes with a surreal other-worldliness. In the poem “How to Talk to Your Dead Mother”, the anxiety of the speaker catapults the poem into the terror of early motherhood, while simultaneously re-creating the mother. The poem is free verse and prosaic. The lines alternate in lengths and Rollender uses italics and syntax to increase the tension. It skips back and forth from colloquial to prayer, from interior to exterior. It’s one of the most memorable poems in the book, from its imagery to its emotion. The second person address has a distancing effect, but Rollender’s accurate portrayal of that anxiety elevates the poem:
“You say the hummingbird's too frantic to watch.
To keep the baby alive, you hold him over your heart,
skin on skin. Pray for mercy, for how the body hollows,
your mother intones, and that's how you remember
her – if you don't pray against everything, the roof
will fall in, the trees will pierce the windows, the quilts
go up in flames. You don't tell her how your whole life
has gone brittle...”
The anxiety motor is not just relegated to the act of mothering, but also acts as a nod to Catholicism, or the lapse in it. The daughter is a mother mourning the almost-loss of her son born nine weeks prematurely, and the commune between her and her own ghost-mother is so believable. It has its own baggage, its own language between mothers and daughters – a language that hinges on the religion of the speaker’s upbringing, the mother’s relationship to the physical world, the speaker’s unburdening of guilt over her body’s failure. The ghost-mother manages to maintain her humanity in this poem, while still being ethereal. It’s fairly brilliant. “You don’t ask her to bless your house or the baby whose bones rise against skin. Her hands have been in the earth. Well, they’re there now, folded in this quiet sacrament of how what has been useful sleeps.” Heartbreaking. Accurate. The speaker’s resolute journey, her own system of answers and calm. The device of conversation as the antithesis to the speaker’s fear of not performing or being or doing or fixing… it’s a remarkable poem.
It’s a remarkable chapbook. Rollender’s speaker is strong, and that is what makes poems like these tackling questions like these work. The repetition of language and imagery work together to create a cohesive book of prayers and laments. In “Vespers”, Rollender writes: “I will uncreate my whole life, walk myself back//into my mother and then into the abyss.” But she doesn’t. The tenacity to exist through the physical and into the beyond creates its own world on the interim, where bones are everyday fixtures, salt is a talisman, and God is a child. “Bone of My Bone” is a memorable read.