Bone of My Bone, winner of the Blood Pudding Press 2015 Poetry Chapbook Contest
Author: Nicole Rollender
Publisher: Blood Pudding Press
Publication date: Sep. 5, 2015
Bone of My Bone by Nicole Rollender
I am my own land, unmanageable. There’s a cross
road where my hands and lips intersect
with an illumined city’s windows open to blackbirds
that promise to come through branches,
incising a woman’s kitchen, the reliquaria of domesticity –
white-draped ducks’ broken necks rising
on counters. How do I measure the body’s gardens
from within its bone fences? A woman’s skin
is one world. The birth canal is another – how you lived
in a bell or an oyster, rocking back and forth
in seaweed for a long time. Who hatches from it, shining
through rain? In the old world, piss prophets mixed
a woman’s lemon urine with wine to discern what
was in the womb. A hand held out for a zinnia
if she empties, if a distant horse runs back
to God, if a boat grows smaller, its cargo
of consecrated pears now rotting. My mother will curl
into herself, as will I, as did my grandmother, joints
unloosening more than a century after her birth. I put
the lines that grew on her skin into a bowl, muddy
my fingers in her waxiness and into her dead eye,
unraveling her, seaming her skin, blanching her
bones back to such a shine, like a giant star’s last open
into brilliance. 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.
(Originally published in The Journal.)
* * * * *
Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Radar Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. She is the author of the chapbooks Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at http://www.nicolerollender.com/ and www.facebook.com/nicole.rollender.
Twitter: @ASI_Stitches, https://twitter.com/ASI_Stitches
* * * * *[This interview was conducted via email in August 2015.]
NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Bone of My Bone.
NR: I often have a hard time writing about my own work, or trying to encapsulate what a chapbook is trying to do in a few sentences, so I attempted to do that here: Through the half-lit poems in Bone of My Bone runs a troubling line of questioning – what’s beyond this life? – as the narrator contends with death on a very visceral level: “The hip is something/ no longer examined in the light.” In these poems’ rooms, which are like the ruins of a cathedral open to a night sky, the haunted narrator explores the real ways that we take which is ours, both in this life and in the next. There’s a chance to seize at “what is also the divine: There is no saint/without a past.”
One day, I was reading Blackbird and came upon Malachi Black’s poem, “Quarantine,” a crown of sonnets that follow the 10 movements (Lauds, Prime, Terce and so on) in the Christian monastic prayer known as the canonical hours. These movements follow the passage of one day, so Lauds is a predawn prayer, None is the afternoon prayer, Vespers is sundown’s and so forth. Black calls “Quarantine” a poem “to the possibility of God.” My chapbook started with a similar long “book of hours” type poem, parts of which appear in Bone of My Bone – where the narrator struggles to view and classify what God is: “What is the divine, but God-/light, thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone// shine?”
I put poems I already had written together to form the chapbook, which I wanted to be a kind of violent crying out to God – trying to make sense of why some babies are born very premature, women die early, some women can’t have children, women commit suicide, some women think of committing suicide. The poems walk between this life and the next, weaving together the disturbing and the sublime.
NCL: In a Yale Alumni Magazine article "Faith, in poetry" (May/June 2013), which discusses Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine who left to teach at Yale Divinity School, Mark Oppenheimer writes "the relationship between poetics and piety—so obvious from biblical times through the Victorian era—now seems sundered; poets are a very secular bunch..." That isn't the case for Bone of my Bone, in which faith, God, the complexities and incongruities of being an embodied spirit seem to be pivotal. What has been the response to your poems from other poets? Have you found that others try to pigeon-hole you or minimize / make assumptions about you or your work?
NR: Good question. There’s definitely faith-based poetry like church hymns that are simplistic in their view of God – you know, we’re toiling in the vineyards, praising a distant God and longing for paradise. Things that border on or become cliché, what you referred to as the medieval or Victorian-type poems. Many Catholic saints even wrote poetry like this, poetry that doesn’t resonate with me, since it feels very one-note. My poems aren’t in this “church” camp.
What you observed about this small collection, that my poems deal with “the complexities and incongruities of being an embodied spirit,” is quite accurate. My maternal grandmother, who was very religious, also saw the dead. Her ability to “see” skipped over my mother and passed to me, so from a very young age, I recognized that there was a here and a there that co-existed. So from about the age of 3, I had an unnerving sense of the dead’s existence after death, and that someday I would be one of them.
Poet Anne Carson said something that makes sense of this disquiet. I’m paraphrasing here, but Carson described the feeling as walking through your life with an inkling of what’s also running alongside you on the other side, the flame of God, whatever the afterlife is. So that sense of mortality, of an internal straining toward something to take the place of loneliness. I’m a fan of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, where she compares the inner self to a series of mansions one must enter and go deeper within in order to achieve some kind of enlightenment: “It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves.” There’s also a definite loneliness in that inner self-contending and contemplation. But the reward is what my poems seek, again quoting Teresa of Avila: “Union is as if in a room there were two large windows through which the light streamed in; it enters in different places but it all becomes one.”
I wrote these poems from a fragmented, fragile stance, and feel they’re confessional: The reader sees my falling apart as my water breaks nine weeks early in my second pregnancy. The reader sees that wish for death. The reader uses my kaleidoscopic lens: here’s the world through a religious/spirit-inhabited lens. The narrator is also a seeker, looking for a God that she hasn’t quite found yet, and is trying to determine if he will love her or shun her. But (as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a God who wants our love and is waiting for it), and as Teresa of Avila writes (“This Beloved of ours is merciful and good. Besides, he so deeply longs for our love that he keeps calling us to come close.”), these poems hope to find that God.
You know, I’ve been fortunate in that my poems haven’t been ridiculed or pigeon-holed by other poets and editors. Of course, “God poems” aren’t for everyone. But I think in my poems, alongside God also runs a strain of John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul. The despair juxtaposed with the eternal light. There’s sadness in my poems. There’s a music that I make from this chaos.
Also, I’m not so sure that there’s a strong, continuous tradition of Catholic or Christian poets to latch onto if your work centers on faith-type themes. For me, poets writing about God who resonate are: John Donne, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, Rainer Maria Rilke, Czeslaw Miloscz, Kathleen Norris and Anne Carson. Rilke’s and Carson’s poetry especially, because of that seemingly secret understanding of a vulnerable God who is waiting for us to love him.
NCL: In her essay "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer" (Poetry, November 2005), poet Mary Karr writes:
[I]magine my horror when I began to have experiences of joy. ... But nothing can maim a poet’s practice like joy. As Henri de Montherlant says, “Happiness writes white.” What poet—in this century or any other—has founded her work on happiness? We can all drum up a few happy poems here and there, but from Symbolism and the High Moderns forward, poetry has often spread the virus of morbidity. It’s been shared comfort for the dispossessed. Yes, we have Whitman opening his arms to “the blab of the pave.” We have James Wright breaking into blossom, but he has to step out of his body to do so. We have the revelatory moments of Tranströmer and the guilty pleasure and religious striving of Milosz. W.H. Auden captured the ethos when he wrote, “The purpose of poetry is disenchantment.” Poetry in the recent past hasn’t allowed us much joy.Does that observation hold true for you? Why (or why not?) What role has joy or celebration played in your poetry as whole?
NR: I do live with a strong sense of mortality, or perhaps the “morbidity” that Karr observed, and that sense often informs my work – so you see that I often contend with heavier topics like death, the spirit realm, God, saints, the afterlife. Of course, I experience joy in my life, and that joy does permeate my work. I also have a strong sense that what I have can just as easily be taken away, so I suppose that when celebration does enter my work it’s with a sense of caution (it casts its own shadow). My poems feel like artifact: They’re my attempt to create something beautiful from the imperfect world we inhabit.
Sadness, joy, both feelings come and go, but weaving their imagery together in a poem does create something indelible that doesn’t fade or lose its sharp prick. Yet, the self who inhabits these poems is already dead. In these poems, I’m celebrating small miracles of joy in the quotidian (“One summer/ you left your paper/dolls on a train in Amiens.”) This necklace of memories is what makes me nostalgic for a time and a self I can never return to – each day closer to the end of this life, and closer to the next. This makes me afraid, unlike the saints who were often miserable being earthbound, wanting to be reunited with the God who granted them small moments of ecstasy down here in the weeds. Frankly, I’m still afraid of death: The thought of leaving my children now makes me shudder. I would need to be dragged into the next world; clearly I haven’t yet achieved the same connection to the saints’ God.
NCL: What’s one of the more crucial poems in the chapbook for you? (or what is your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be?
NR: Besides “Bone of My Bone,” which is also the chapbook’s title, another crucial poem that I also happen to like a lot is “Marked” (it first appeared in the December 2014 issue of MiPOesias). I worked through many, many drafts of this poem. I read about certain African tribes that singed the skin of women who didn’t bear children. I thought about people who tattoo iconography on their skin, and what that might mean to them. I thought of those of us who cut into our own skin to make our pain visible. We’re all in some way marked, spiritually, physically or both. And yet, we’re spirits in a body. How do we live these two joined forms? These lines address that concern, can we ever get at the spirit part of ourselves: “This is how // the body seems at first, impenetrable – / yet, a woman still sings ghazals // from between your ribs.”
This is a lie I used to believe: The thief
wasn’t nailed to a tree to enter the saved
city, his palms opening
like mouths, like doors. Only after
his hands were marked did a paradise appear –
I miss your bones, he mouths. This is how
the body seems at first, impenetrable –
yet, a woman still sings ghazals
from between your ribs. Here, these women
squat away from the village, hands
pressed into dirt, the bloody clench
and release of babies crowning near long-
haired cows. Their skin unmarked, the village
says, because otherwise the children
won’t be seen by the gods. Lord, I keep praying
underneath this shadow-drawn tree:
praying from a lion’s yellow belly is how
I understand the way godlight watches me. Bless
the dark. Bless the hole from whence we came.
Teach me to float cities, to salt and unsalt
this ancient hammer before it falls to ink-
arrowed chest. I’m saying make me visible.
If we carve saints who bleed into hagiographies
on our backs, is that enough
for our names to be written in the book
of the dead? They enter and exit my body
as smoke. Migrate the translucencies of seeing
to bone marrow, its shadow ossifying
on my spine, dangling femur, on skull. I watch
the secret face I make into my own flesh,
the way I kissed my dead grandmother’s sunken
chest, the lines of her clavicle like outstretched
arms. The women who don’t bear children
are held down and singed with black lines before
they return to work in the fields, skin a book
of illumination: a flame rises and thins. How
I’ll never see the way my life would move
unmarked, the path in moonlight
already full of stones, already stirring.
NCL: You had another chapbook, Absence of Stars (dancing girl press), that was released within a few months of Bone of My Bone. What draws you to the chapbook form? Specifically for Bone of My Bone: Why did you choose the chapbook as the vehicle for your poems rather than a book-length manuscript or a section in a book? When you started, did you intend to create a chapbook? How long did it take to write this chapbook (or, alternatively, how did you know it was time to stop writing)?
NR: I’m drawn to the chapbook form because they’re tiny little countries that allow a poet to experiment and to also work through a theme or narrative arc in a smaller space. I actually put together Bone of My Bone specifically for the Blood Pudding Press 2015 Chapbook contest last December. I had been thinking about the theme for a little while, and felt that the subject matter was a good match for BPP, since I several of its chapbook titles that embrace the spiritual, the mystical, the ghostly, the macabre, the day’s darker undersides. I know that my poetry isn’t for everyone – my longer book of hours poem was rejected from numerous journals. That’s partly why I used it as a skeleton or starting point for Bone of My Bone. Luckily BPP Publisher Juliet Cook liked the chapbook enough to select it as one of the Blood Pudding Press Chapbook Contest winners.
NCL: What else would you like readers to know about you or your chapbook?
NR: Bone of My Bone is also about carpe diem. Since I was a child of the ’90s, I loved the movie Good Will Hunting where the literature professor played by Robin Williams jumped on a table and gave a spine-tingling monologue about seizing the day. My chapbook is like a long prayer that’s asking for the ability to make the most of time one has on earth. There’s an excitement in being alive, about the possibility of what’s to come, and as Malachi Black said, “the possibility of God.”
NCL: What are you working on now?
NR: My first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming in the late fall from ELJ Publications, so I’m working on the final order and editing and looking for cover art. It’s scary and thrilling at the same time. I didn’t expect to have a full length out this year. Ariana D. Den Bleyker, ELJ’s publisher, had originally accepted a longer chapbook collection, and then earlier this year had solicited a full-length so for a while I’ve been editing, shaping and adding to that original collection. Many of the poems have found homes in journals and I’m excited to release it into the world.