Bone Map
Sara Eliza Johnson

Milkweed Editions, 2015

Sara Eliza Johnson’s collection, selected for the National Poetry Series by Martha Collins, charts the bodiliness of the world, locating materiality and corporeality even in those objects we typically find intangible: clouds “shift / their bone map” and a deer’s antlers snag “the light’s belly, / spilling purple viscera / everywhere.” Bodies, Johnson tells us repeatedly, “are built // to ruin.” 

In “Fable,” for example, Johnson hints at the terrible violence one body might enact upon another: a father, “not knowing / what his hands will be made to do / to other men,” rests one upon his son’s head. In the savage and surreal landscape of Bone Map, a “deer’s mouth is stained with berries // of its own blood” and children play baseball with the carcass of a blackbird as “a war drones and swarms” above them. Even the saints, finally, are just corpses, “truly dead and unraiseable.” In the last section of the book, poems that reimagine The Voyage of St. Brendan, in which a 6th century Irish seafarer pursues an elusive island paradise, seep into a series of elegiac poems crafted as letters from “the Ice Field,” a region as barren and lonely as its name suggests. It’s not always clear in these poems whether the narrator pursues the dead or the divine — or how we are to distinguish between the two.

Nevertheless, the narrator partakes in the violence and pleasure of this imperfect world: “I break the hand, slice the heart—I mean I break the bread, slice the apple—and eat them.” To have a body, to be embodied, no matter how ruined it may be, is to be of the world and therefore resurrected in it. In “The Last Przewalski’s Horse, for example,” describing the death of “the last remaining species of wild horses,” a hunter dismembers the animal, carefully pulling out its teeth, plucking each hair, boiling the bones. The eyes are left in the field, Johnson writes:

       …unable to close
and no use to anyone
       but the last flies of the season
which, a day before the snow
       finally kills them,
consume the retina
       piece by piece, photon
by photon, to see

Here, out of violence and loss, Johnson builds her brutal but beautiful vision, like the red-capped little girl in “Marchen” who climbs out of the corpse of a wolf with a story to sing us, “the animal guts in her hand.”