Alex Carrigan on The Smallest of Bones, a new poetry collection by Holly Lyn Walrath

The human body is one of the most complex natural structures in the world. Nearly every part of the body is designed with a purpose and functions without the person thinking too much about how they breathe or see. To deconstruct the body is to try to understand how the body does what it does, but to really understand the why is another challenge.

In her newest poetry collection, The Smallest of Bones, from CLASH Books, Holly Lyn Walrath attempts a deconstruction of her own. The poetry collection is a series of poems that analyze and deconstruct various parts of the body, while also tying them into ideas of gender and how humans play off of one another. The result of this is a lyrical autopsy that looks over how one constructs themselves with the clay of their own self.

Similarly, the first notable observation of The Smallest of Bones is how Walrath expertly and creatively constructs the collection. Upon reading the table of contents, we can see that the collection is divided into poems based on parts of the body, but that each page is its own piece on the table of contents. Just reading the table of contents, we are already getting the first poem, or poems, of the collection (and because it is labeled “Contents” at the top of the page, it’s a somewhat fitting inclusion with the rest of the collection). Each page is named after the first line of text on it, meaning that there can potentially be hundreds of poems hidden within the collection.

Walrath’s meticulous construction doesn’t end with just the sheer number of pieces in the collection. Each “section” of the book begins with a description of the body part, which Walrath notes are “inspired by old anatomy books, and, occasionally, Wikipedia entries that had out of date information about the human body.” While these begin as textbook descriptions of the cranium and the sternum, among others, they each turn into descriptive statements about the comparisons between male and female bodies. For instance, in “STERNUM,” Walrath writes:

Some studies reveal that repeated punches or continual beatings, sometimes called “breastbone punches”: to the sternum area can cause fracture. Dislocation of this bone is rare and usually caused by severe trauma. The sternum is also called the breast bone. Hiding our hearts is easy when we have so many bones.

Following these descriptions, Walrath transitions into her poetic verses, often written in short, fragmented verses. These can go for the more abstract, but also for the critical. In one such example, following “STERNUM,” Walrath writes:

they beg for their bodies back
these women who are poor
and we look down on them
we say, you don’t really need that
do you?

Much like poetic structure, Walrath is amending and changing the body based on how it appears to those who observe it. While each section may focus on a particular aspect of the body, her verses are filled with actions and descriptions of other parts of the body, calling into focus the way humans move and how emotions play into our actions. This can lead to passages like one in the “SACRUM” section, which reads:

and say
my name again
say it into my skin

carve it on my bones
even the ones I don’t use
like my hips

am I holy
if I am not a temple

am I human

After which the next page closes the section with:

we must love
a story like

we must love

The Smallest of Bones is an endless autopsy of creative discoveries. It’s full of so many ideas and ways to read the collection that we may need multiple reads to feel we’ve understood a fraction of what Walrath is conveying, but each new reading will enlighten us to understanding her brilliance as a poet. It’s a poetry collection that asks for us to keep digging through the viscera of life and how we view and treat one another to see if there’s a core to be found within.

The Smallest of Bones, by Holly Lyn Walrath. CLASH Books, September 2021. 90 pages. $14.95, paper.

Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Virginia. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell MagazineLambda Literary ReviewEmpty MirrorGertrude PressQuarterly West, Whale Road ReviewStories About Penises (Guts Publishing, 2019), Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear (Et Alia Press, 2020), ImageOutWrite Vol. 9, and Last Day, First Day Vol. 2. He is also the co-editor of Please Welcome to the Stage…: A Drag Literary Anthology with House of Lobsters Literary.

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