Sarah Rose Nordgren's BEST BONES

Phoebe Reeves

Best Bones, Sarah Rose Nordgren’s first book of poems, won the 2013 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and was released from the University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series last year. Nordgren’s debut collection displays a Greek chorus of voices, ranging from the quiet tones of small children and ghosts to the sly or bitter tales of adults: wives, mistresses, slaves, and shepherds. “Stillbirth,” the poem that opens the first section of the book, warns the reader, “If you learn anything / from living in this house, it will be how / to survive a variety of interruptions.”

The poems that follow present each scene, each speaker, through a vivid and pitiless gaze, leaving the reader with a stimulating dose of ambiguity and incompleteness. There is a strong influence from folktales and fables, but also from science and anthropology. What holds all these speakers together is the precise and controlled diction of the poems as they move from one exact image to the next. In “Exhumation,” a woman speaks from her grave, saying,

My life is under yours; in-
consolable, bathed in drainage, a midden of cracked

bottles, swollen tampons, rusted metal sheets cast
from the clamor. You flasher of future, your liver and lung

are fleshier, pinker.

And in “Blackfly,” the insect tells the farmer, “I would make / a bedroom of your eye, a parlor in the deep / fold behind your right ear, a kitchen / on your tongue.” Poems like these use visceral images and crackling sounds to illuminate each speaker’s position in the world, often positions of difficulty and struggle. Yet the book, taken as a whole, offers cautious optimism in the face of disappointment, violence, or mortality. “When You Are Dead,” for example, tells us that “When God leans down and stops / your breath with one word, // He retires your body like a beloved coat.”

One strong thread laced throughout the collection is the presence of mothers and daughters. Many of the poems feature the voice of a woman who is sometimes mother, sometimes daughter, and always grappling with loss. In “Fable,” the introductory poem before the first section begins, the speaker tells us, “I am the oldest daughter in the story.” Many of the poems explore the world this first poem opens to us. “1917” explains, “The holiest thing a mother does is know / your name long after her skin // disintegrates,” while “To My Daughter,” a poem written as month-long journal entries from an expectant mother, closes with “I spit out a silver key / and try it in my wooden navel. Opening, / I extract your tiny, ticking heart.” These mother / daughter poems provide some of the strongest language in the collection, as well as a familiar touchstone to return to between the other poems’ voices.

Of particular interest are the poems influenced by historical and anthropological research, such as “A Bathing Gown a Girl Can Make,” “Instructions for a Marriage by Capture,” “Instructions for a Marriage by Service,” and especially the paired poems “Tending the Flocks” and “Prion,” which examine the phenomenon of prion diseases in sheep and humans. At turns tender, angry, and clinical, these poems incorporate the research Nordgren has done in a way that feels effortless and natural:

Like a dance, the new shape
caught on quickly. One body
touched another, and the other fell
in line. Surprising, how easy
to reform what our maker forms
in us: press against a spine
just so, and it turns to imitation. 

The way Nordgren’s poems are inspired and shaped by research is compelling and adds a dimension of exploration, curiosity, and historical context that fleshes out the book in directions at once surprising and organic, so that the world appears stranger, bigger, and somehow also more familiar that it was before. No poem is a better example of this move than the title poem, “The Best Bones,” in which a child’s ghost, abandoned in an old house in Scotland, tells her story:

We lived in a falling down
house where the radio played faraway
bomb speculations. After the stairs rotted through
and become too dangerous, my family
stayed below, leaving in my control
the upper floors. That’s how it was
in those days—easy to ignore
the structures sagging over your head. 

Best Bones is an impressive debut by a strong poet, moving lyrically and expertly from voice to voice, through decades, across continents, but always pinning down the exact language necessary to illuminate each circumstance. In “Blue Whale,” the ethereal closing poem, Nordgren writes, “An empty house sliding into the gulf at night // Vacated by its lovers // Something you didn’t expect poured out of you // But your heart is a stolen carriage.” As the whale sings at the close of this book, we are left with the cavernous space these poems have opened in us.

Phoebe Reeves earned her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, and now teaches English at the University of Cincinnati’s Clermont College in rural southern Ohio, where she advises East Fork: An Online Journal of the Arts. Her chapbook The Lobes and Petals of the Inanimate was published by Pecan Grove Press in 2009. Her poems have recently appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Drunken Boat, failbetter, and Memorious. 

Best Bones
Sarah Rose Nordgren
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95 paperback; ISBN: 978-0822963172
88 pages