Part One of Four: Joseph Ross’ Meeting Bone Man
Ross, Joseph. Meeting Bone Man. Charlotte, North Carolina: Main Street Rag, 2012. 91 pp. 15.00 (paper).
The irony that may immediately come to one’s mind upon finishing such a human book—in its themes and its compassion—is that it is framed by poems in which the speaker observes and contemplates a skeleton, albeit a “live” one. At times a walking memento mori (“In seeing what looks/ like nothing,/ he actually/ shows you everything.// Bone man is inevitable.”) and in other instances a stoic traveler outside of time (“He survives/ in the perfect stillness of bone./ No desert sands shifting./ No ocean waves rolling.”), explaining how Bone Man fits, structurally, in the book is challenging (Pg. 7, 73). It might be easier to think of Bone Man as a metaphorical representation of the speaker’s self-awareness as it evolves over the course of the book.
As stated earlier, the strength of the collection is the voice’s unabashed concern for other human beings—many of whom we see suffering or enduring some form of grief. At their best, Ross’ poems find ways to merge images that bring to fore the surreal nature of persisting in the midst of great pain. In “The Tent,” the second poem in the Darfur series, the speaker notes:
seems to breathe.
[. . . ]
than the seven bodies
I washed and wrapped
now lying outside
in the heat
like wood. (Pg. 9)
The “breathing” of the inanimate tent contrasted with the lifelessness of the genocide victims puts one’s brain in the uncomfortable position of contemplating how easily human life can essentially become kindling in this confused world.
There are moments, though, where Ross’ compassion and emotional investment bend his language a bit close to the flames of sentimentality and abstraction. In the “The Universal Artificial Limb Company,” gentrification may be cast as a too easy—or possibly too standard—enemy of the Silver Spring establishment:
Meanwhile, Whole Foods and Starbucks
hover across the street
waiting, plotting, maybe even grinning,
rubbing their manicured hands together
[. . .]
Next door, luxury condos
rise slowly, floor by floor,
a high-rise with the perfect posture
to look down at a store
not even sophisticated enough
to call its product prosthetics. (Pg. 28-29)
Or in “A Man and His Dog” where the stroke-stricken dog in an elderly man’s lap is described as “uncertain as wind” and “sad as silence” (Pg. 42). Still, with the amount of contemporary poetry that simply wafts over readers—actively disassociated from the author’s feeling and humanity—this is a fruitful challenge in Ross’ book. Nowhere in the collection do you question his presence as a poet and as a man of breath and true emotion.
Ross balances a “Cool Disco Dan” series exploring the work and myth of the Washington, D.C. graffiti artist with an “On Jean-Michel Basquiat” series later in the book. Both series take interesting looks into graffiti as a rebuff of social institutions and art as a means of processing and transcending (or not transcending) death. While the most powerful poem in the manuscript may be “The Silence of Lawrence King”—which, through a counterpoint of voices, captures the tormented moment of affection that preceded Lawrence King’s murder—the most masterful poem in the collection is “Before My Father Was My Father.” Ross’ patient and precise eye moves purposely through the received memory his father’s escaping a sinking navy transport vessel in the South Pacific Ocean. The poem truly understands awe and pathos, and uses both effectively.
The exit quote for the collection comes from Chris Abani’s poem “Sanctificum”: “This is not a lamentation, damn it./ This is a love song.” So true and so fitting that one may wonder why it is not the opening quote. But, again, this is a book, a voice, that grows over the course of eighty-eight pages, and what the truth is in the beginning is not the same truth by the end.
The next installment of “Local Fare / Small Bites” will feature Melanie Henderson’s Elegies for New York Avenue (link).