HOW HE LOVED THE BONES, a new chapbook by poet Caitlin Scarano, reviewed by Jonathan Kelly

Caitlin Scarano’s latest chapbook How He Loved the Bones takes us on a journey of recovery as we traverse the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia—the locus of trauma both individual and collective. This work neither romanticizes nor condemns Appalachia; it situates the region within a broader mechanism of historical, patriarchal oppression while positing a methodology of both individual and social repair.

The subject of this narrative escapes their childhood home as a last resort of self-preservation yet finds that the accumulated sufferings of their past have become their traveling companion, have become a sort of alchemical solution within which all future experience must be titrated. The work itself, though compact and easy to read, spans generations and transitions rather abruptly from a history presentation focused on memory, which is presented to us predominantly in the past tense, to a revelatory dream sequence, mostly in the present tense.

If we look at the motor-mechanism of the poem—it’s line breaks for instance—there’s this odd sort of morbidly comedic aspect to the work. Line breaks act as moments of synesthetic disorder. In “In a Lost Year” for instance: “I eat scabs / of roses”, or in “It is January and I am Still”: “This year, / I’ll chase a golden fox. I’ll hang / little lanterns above / our bed.” This jarring technical flourish softens the blow of the death and decay which permeate this short work. And this is not some sort of idealized, idyllic, “poetic”, capital-D Death, but brutal violence: death as it exists in the world, death as messy finality, death as dangling semicolon.

The chapbook opens with a longer poem concerning her father, a figure of austere authority, of explosive temperament, who’s “buried, with no marker, / on the side of a Tennessee mountain […].” The narrator never engages in the quasi-Confessional absolute negation of the father figure though. Rather the work seeks to localize the incorporeal Father who appears in the first half of the work as a ghostly contagion; it seeks to find a place to inter both the historical man and his lingering presence—where he can no longer inflict his pain upon the narrator, where he too perhaps may find a degree of peace, where the pain he has already caused may begin to undergo the process of scarification. And this is the real beauty of this work. The Patriarch, and by extension the synecdochical Patriarchy—that implacable mechanism of oppression which totalizes, which objectifies all relations and reduces them to a common denominator of degradation—finds itself, like Death, de-capitalized, reduced, subjected by the experience of the narrator, localized into something which can be combatted then brought to heel (or perhaps better said: brought to heal).

Perhaps the most formally interesting poem in the collection occurs about halfway through, called “To the hitchhiker on Route 20.” It’s a prose poem, the only one present. The entire collection pivots upon it. This is the moment when the chapbook switches from a predominantly historical narrative to a somnambulatory interrogation of the narrator’s present self. Though the prose poem as a form seems to have had its day in the sun, here—perhaps because it’s only used once—it becomes absolutely revelatory. It functions as Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht in Faust—as a moment that cannot be contained within stanzas but must be presented in all its fullness—at once. Scarano addresses the hitchhiker, “I know the road you flee from.” It’s the same one Scarano traveled until this very moment. 

The following poem, “A dream you have in which I’m drinking again and you speak in riddles” denotes a clear formal break from the previous section. “I’ll tell you about feasts—they always run / out or rot or bring the worst of corvids.” The narrator seeks a fulfillment that wasn’t to be found in the domineering patriarchal order they left behind. This theme of longing for fulfillment, of emptiness, of starvation permeates the latter half. In the penultimate poem, “Animals I’ve Freed”, Scarano begins “The gray horse that circled the house, I’ve given her / oats and honey. I’ve undone the word starve from her / body, pushed her scapulas and ribs back / below the surface.” We must look closely here. The horse has been fed and is not at risk of starvation, but the motor-mechanism of starvation—starve as verb—still persists. The ribs have been resubmerged into the flesh, but this is not to say that they will not rise again in time. We have not entered a utopia. Whatever respite we find from the troubles of this life must be fought against incessantly. 

In the final poem, “Outside, you are planting trees” the buried father who predominates the first section of this work reappears. Here, however he has been translocated into the realm of dream. “I dreamt of my father / boring holes into a boat just to gesture / at repair.” The cycle of pain breaks. The narrator, if not exactly offering forgiveness, at least no longer engages in a hitherto futile attempt to escape from their own history. Instead of finding themselves enthralled to this patriarch, the localized father is now placed within the subject’s own narration of making-whole, of undoing the cycle of pain and despair to which we have borne witness. We come away from the work knowing that, though we may not be able to escape fully from the past, it is nevertheless within our power to refashion it into a locus of revolutionary change—of radical love.

How He Loved the Bones, by Caitlin Scarano. Brooklyn, New York: Lillet Press, September 2021. $13.00, chapbook.

Jonathan Kelly was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He spent a few years after college working and traveling around the United States, writing whenever and wherever he could—seedy motels, the steering wheel of his car, diners, truckstops. Currently, he’s an MFA student in The New School, NYC. His work generally seeks to interrogate the atomic relationship of capital, white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism.

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