Sarah Rose Nordgren’s Best Bones (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014) pulls from both legend and a vivid projections of reality to create a variety of magical realism that proves both self-aware and notably absent, resulting in a gorgeous tonal color that packs enough power to sustain a sinuous, engaging narrative.
Nordgren immediately sets the reader in the world of a self-reliant “I,” as the speaker “[pulls herself] from the water by [her] hair / [Shakes] the leaves out of sleep” (“Fable,” 1-2). This declaration of the reflective first-person, this pulling “myself” from the water, immediately stands to distinguish Nordgren’s “fable” from the typical literature that the title suggests. The subsequent self-portrait further complicates this initial declaration of autonomy, as it features a tension between the innocent and sinister:
I perch on a child’s bicycle
Wearing mother’s nightgown
Frayed lace through winter
The dark jealous girl walking
Barefoot before the king (“Fable,” 4-12)
Bolstered by this duality, the speaker’s initial reclamation of the self serves as a foundation of her journey through the thick of Best Bones, during which Nordgren redefines the modern fairytale as a projection of intimacy and absence.
The first section deals primarily with a selection of more classical storylines, each of them fragmented and augmented beyond casual recognition. “The invisible boy,” “the gentle Doctor,” and even the speaker, “becoming more creaturely / with each passing year”—all of their stories are told with remarkable dexterity and almost metafictional attention. The narrative skids between the dreamy reality in which the story is being told and the concrete dreamscape in which the story is being inhabited.
These opening poems refuse to reconcile their smooth exteriors with the darker forces beneath them, evoking the inward-facing nature of “Fable.” While the narrative never directly asserts these forces—which must be more powerful than the surface-level storyline with which they contend —they feel omnipresent. They exist in “the streetlamps, bright / and silent in the snow, [that] stalk / your private movements” (“Remarks on the Morning’s Work in Winter,” 2-4), in “the drunk girl” who “[cries] on the bus” (“Sisters,” 10).
All of these presences contrast beautifully with the central image of “1917,” perhaps the culmination of each of these individual figures, a sketch of a woman giving birth:
When she hunched over the steaming
kitchen sink, it would be yellow petals pouring
from her eyes. Her breasts would ungrow
to fresh mosquito bites, and the tiny,
plastic Reset button, installed
in her chest so carefully, would glow. (“1917,” 9-14)
In restructuring the event of her birth, the speaker makes room for the second section of Best Bones, which elevates the everyday to the grandiose, contrasts it with the industrial. This combination of the urban and regal reinforces Nordgren’s cycling maternal imagery. “[Hypothetically]” pregnant women stand as the Virgin Mary, while other mothers hear the shouts of their daughters “from a burning tree, […] arms / wrapped tight around [its] body” (“To My Daughter,” 10-12), or watch as men “fling the child over / the shoulder and proceed / uninvited through her door” (“Instructions for Marriage by Capture,” 10-12).
As this last scenario suggests, this mother-child imagistic comparative seems resolved only after the thematic focus moves away from maternal experience and toward the darker intimacy developed through relationships with dominant and subordinate figures. Manifestations of this idea—“the black girl who hangs / in the corner like a dress, / insisting on silence / with her rosebud eyes” (“Instructions for Marriage by Service,” 2-5) and the girl who “eats / her own hands” in desperation (“The Performance,” 16-17)—are underscored by the same sort of haunting presence extant in the background of first section.
Beyond the master-servant relationship that Nordgren expounds upon through the intermediate portion of Best Bones, the penultimate section returns to this type of phantasmal surveillance. The speaker appears younger, more sentimental, affecting the substance of the poetry rather than its tone:
I let you take care of me so
you will feel close to all the little details
necessary for me to grow.
How will I keep you
if this is the loudest I can sing? (“Love Poem,” 2-10)
As the speaker moves through postcolonial perspectives and biological references, we ultimately reach the title poem, “The Best Bones,” tying together these elements with the fantastical nature of Nordgren’s poetic sequence as a whole. “Years / went by and birds across the window,” she writes. “I heard that oil was found off the coast. / […] / Finally, after what seemed like a long / time, I forgot my loneliness” (“The Best Bones,” 15-23). Nordgren’s ability to convey the fluidity of passing time leaves the reader with same airy absence that the speaker experiences as she passes through a narrative not unlike that of Through the Looking-Glass.
Perhaps the most striking element of the last full section of Best Bones, however, is its palpable shift from the autonomous to the reliant. The idea that Nordgren chooses to move from a place of power to a place of dependence—familial or romantic—prompts us to question the more fantastic aspects of her narrative. The trope of the dreaming child lends itself much more readily to the imaginary then the portrait of the sleeping adult. But to what extent can we accept the whimsical over the mundane? And which is more real?
While reconciling the two seems to necessitate extracting the “magic” from the fanciful landscape that Best Bones creates so vibrantly, the fact that we’re hesitant to do this—to remove the very feature of the dreamscape that makes it so attractive—seems critical. Because the speaker’s constant surveillance by the morally or mortally superior suggests a sort of self-awareness, I’m inclined to see Nordgren’s message as an invitation to look more closely at the private worlds of our youth, rather than a warning to draw ourselves from them.
by Sarah Rose Nordgren
University of Pittsburgh Press, September 2014
Paperback $15.95, 96 pp.
Sarah Rose Nordgren is the author of Best Bones, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, released from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Pleiades, The Harvard Review, Best New Poets, and others. A two-time fellowship recipient from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Sarah Rose has also received support from the Breadloaf Writers Conference, The Ohio Arts Council, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. For more information visit sarahrosenordgren.com.