Therese Halscheid

Rosary of Bones:

The Poem As Blessing

A Review of poems by Jennifer MacPherson

Jennifer MacPherson’s poetry and life certainly have made an
impression in literary circles across America. Her commitment to
her own writing and the larger community go hand-in-hand. She is
founding editor of The Comstock Review, and as such, has brought
numerous poems into the world through this respected journal.

In 2006, I had the privilege of seeing the third floor of her beautiful
home in Syracuse, NY, a large attic completely devoted to poetry
books. Those who know this poet also know she attempts to read
a book a day. Her dedication and support of others’ poetry is clear
in the numerous reviews she has written, testimonials which can be
viewed on the The Comstock Review website.

Regarding her own poetic achievements, she has been widely published
in journals, among them Asheville Poetry Review, Calyx,
Connecticut Review and Louisiana Literature. She has authored
two chapbooks—Greatest Hits (Pudding House 2001) and Stuck
in Time (Pudding House, 2002) as well as full length poetry collections,
most recent, A Nickel Tour of the Soul (Foothills, 2004) and
In the Mixed Gender of the Sea (Spire 2004), a collection which
won the Spire Press Poetry Book Award.

In this seventh full-length poetry collection, Rosary of Bones,
Jennifer MacPherson guides us through life experiences; poems are
strung together like a strand of sacred beads. And like the beads of
a rosary, like prayer, we take in the words, they resonate, the
poems become holy. These are poems we work through our hands
and our hearts, understanding as we go.

The text is not religious, in the traditional sense of the word. This
rosary celebrates and examines bones of the body. Not only the
human body…. This poet explores the bones of trees and birds,
bones of the earth, bones of the seasons, buried bones, and yes,
even the bones of a god.

The poet’s testament to bones is laid bare, in the strong opening
poem, “Credo,” where she notes their vitality, their activities as being
so important, they “turn the wheel of the universe.” In “Credo” we
learn of her own connection, “I rejoice in my bones each morning”
she writes. “At night, my bones retract into a thin skin of dreams.”

In “The Bone Poem,” which is one of my favorites, the poet opens
with her own bones waking her at night. She aches, and an omniscient
god knows of her pain, a god “whose own bones mutter
when he leans to listen.” She writes:

          not the God of meek and gentle heart
          who rises—perfect—each Spring
          but an older, arthritic god
          who knows about bones,
          notes the hours
          when they begin to slowly grind each other,
          when skin thins and they stand like
          so many knobby sentinels.

I so enjoyed the idea of humanizing this god of bones, this old, old
god whose own bones are arthritic.

Unlike poems which explore decline, in the poem, “Before My
Bones Were Set,” MacPherson takes us into her mother’s womb, to
pre-birth, where she says, “My cells swelled like ripened fruit / and
bones began to form…” The poem is profound. Using very succinct,
vivid images, the poet strings two very large themes together:
the theme of life and theme of death. Simultaneously, she takes us
into her mother’s womb, where the body is being formed, while, at
the same time, shows how the unborn child’s outer life is being
formed, that of her not-yet-known father, a sailor, who is about to
go off to war and die.

As we make our way through this rosary, as we turn pages, the exploration
of this motif is amazingly fresh. We see this in “Throwing the
Bones,” where the bones are used as a divination system. Here, we
experience a psychic casting a tin cup of bones and reading the future:

          The woman whispers that I must remember
          nature’s counterweights of pleasure and pain,
          balanced like the bones thrown upon the table.
          As one increases, another’s falls, even as
          my own ribs flicker in light
          cast by a fading bulb. Her voice flutters on—

At times, we see their physicality, their whiteness, as in “X-ray”
where “Her body cannot be hidden in dark spaces. / Its bones glow
in the dark.” This particular poem ends with “Her bones flower.
Such bright poisonous jewels.” Again, we note how the author
works with counterweights—the dark and the light, as in pleasure
and pain, which juxtapose polar themes of wellness and decline.

Not all poems in this collection have bones as a primary subject.
There are many which explore other themes (of trees and birds, the
poet’s relatives—their lives and their bodies) but even so, bones
appear symbolically, in some way. They are the backdrop to a
larger message, much like our own hidden skeletons, which form
our outward, obvious shapes.

Seasons are given breath and life, as in “Autumn Bones,” where the
poet gives this season “a still-clothed skeleton.” “The trees bleach
to bone,” she adds, and later, in the same poem, she moves from
representation to the physical: “Bones turn in the soil to feed each
new plant….”

Even in spellbound moments, such as the heightened scene of anticipating
a car accident on an icy morning, when she is caught
between spinning on ice or bringing the car safely to a halt, even
then, bones have their place:

          …my body boneless, fleshless, frozen.
          The car slid, straightened, still on the road
          as if held loosely by invisible wire.

And after, when the whirling stops, they have their place… “My
flesh opens to silence, singing of the bones.” (The Cutting Edge”)
MacPherson is not given to common talk, even in the varied representation
of bones, her lines are original. There is, however, in “My
Ex-Boyfriend Takes Out the Garbage,” a line where we experience
a clichéd thought: “Thirty-two years ago/ and the man still chewed
that bone.” How difficult it is to take a familiar saying and work it
anew, yet in the context of this poem, this saying is removed from
cliché, and it is well-rendered.

Bones, bones, bones. In this collection, they are real and they are
emblematic. At times, as the author would agree, our bones become
the reasons for things. In “Fifty-Fifth Birthday Blues” the poet
wisely states, “We must have explanations for what happens/ in our
lives or we would go mad.” This is what the rosary accomplishes…
the bones explain the life/death cycle, the cosmic twirl of the planets,
they are prophetic in forecasting our future, they direct our
present, they describe our past. They are wise in their discernments.

In a restaurant scene, “Dinner for One: Detroit,” for example, the
writer is eating alone while overhearing the conversation at another
table, and she becomes alarmed to the point where her throat is
clogged, where, as the author writes, “my breastbone moves with
my breath.”

In the end, the breastbone is the place of the heart in this book.
Woven into this rosary of poems is love: love found and love lost.
Several poems address the heart-place…the breastbone, speak of it
like a cage around the heart, locking in its emotions:

          And I felt that loneliness after love,
          that wind whistling through hollow space
          boundaried by ribs and spine, by vertebrae…
                                        (Moment of Truth)

In fact, many poems in Rosary of Bones, are the author’s “Moment
of Truth.” Told honestly, lyrically, they string together the author’s
world like a rosary; and these are the beads of her search, the various
poetic prayers of the body.