Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman once wrote, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments… when, in short, a people become an audience… culture-death is a clear possibility.” He discussed the “Catastrophe of Trivialisation” as the constant stimulation of mind in a digitalised western world would end up a utopian apocalypse. Nicole Rollender has similar observations but her outlet is an austere dystopia, but the sentiment of culture-death remains the same…
Bone of my Bone is a deep plunge into the physical and existential predicaments of our collective “Flesh Existence”. It is a frightening, courageous and daunting journey which has the power to force its reader to scurry around the gritty recesses of their own subconscious. However, despite the bleak nature of the work, a fundamental truth about the morose side of human consciousness is discovered. This chapbook strips flesh down to bone and contrasts the classic quandary between mind and body as they form a collective “Primal Fear”, “… God, if it’s you who destroys / if it’s you who spits out ghosts / … then I swaddle you, Lord … / Even if my mouth fills with one hundred severed tongues” (Vespers).
The chapbook begins with the poem “Lauds” which drags the reader into a “Vortex of Uncertainty” as the ineffable juxtaposition between the cosmos and the immediate experience of consciousness are explored consistently, “Outside the birds are dying of cold on their branches, / and you’re looking for a way into heaven” (Lauds, p.1). Rollender burrows into the egotistical nature of humankind, the ignorant destruction of our “Neglected Earth” and all which inhabits it for the gain of personal salvation. She achieves this with trademark intensity and graphic imagery which uncovers the precarious modern fears of lost individualism in the swathes of a dying planet. Bone of my Bone not only exposes our deepest fears, but confronts them directly. Rollender writes with clarity despite her use of challenging metaphorical imagery. Her poetry flows from an anxious mind, “if I can’t speak more sweetly, will they cut my tongue from my mouth?” (Tongue, p.7)
Rollender has the skill and confidence to utilise grim, vivid and disturbing imagery to highlight her nihilistic philosophical persuasions. In fact, the macabre hopelessness forms the anchor of this collection. The “Morbid Fascination” prevalent in the human psyche is revealed through a darkened and catastrophic world – where one is a vicarious voyeur to the experience of lucid madness, as if visiting an asylum in Victorian Britain where inmates mutter scattered verses from T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland.
Rollender likes the reader to play “God” in Bone of my Bone. From the dismemberment of an animal by “God the Butcher” – “He can’t cut these split carcasses on the block – / a butcher must crack backbone and find the deepest vein / to drink” (Lauds, p.1) – or an insect with “God as Nature”, “Dropping the torsos / in the stream, the water performed the final kill” (Disassembling, p.6), Rollender manages to create a distinctive poetic experience. At the heart of the work is a pendulum which dangles on the threshold of humanity’s fragility, “even if my arms are cut from my torso, sing you / into being, // even if my mouth fills with one hundred / severed tongues” (Vespers, p.9).
The Universe in Bone of my Bone is a shadowy place – Rollender employs bleak symbolism reminiscent of Ted Hughes’ pinnacle collection, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. She employs mythological imagery – most noticeably Christian – to reference consistently body image and the way it reacts to an existential world devoid of a benevolent Power. She blends effortlessly theological and pantheistic concepts into her work, “What is the divine, but God- / light, thorn and scourge, blood let, that bone / shine? What is also the divine: There is no saint / without a past.” (Sext, p.3), “the one / who cracks my pelvis, / he-who-hollows between / mountains […] Hold me, Lord” (Driving to the Hospital, After My Water Breaks Nine Weeks Early, p.8).
The consistent onslaught of desolation through the eyes of womanhood is a moving experience for reader and writer alike. She highlights a world where bodies are seen as decrepit when mothers are unable to produce milk for their starving offspring, and similarly when their wombs are unable to provide a safe passage between pregnancy and birth. Rollender deals with gateways and passages, blurring the lines between birth, life and death, “A woman’s skin / is one world. The birth canal is another”, “The women who don’t bear children / are held down and singed with black lines before // they return to work in fields, skin a book / of illumination” (Marked, pp.11-12).
The murky philosophy of death and hopelessness are the predominant themes in Bone of my Bone but within it are the occasional glimmers of light which gives the chapbook its substance. The continuity makes it satisfying to read all in one go, as one world a short story – the familiar images sew the collection together into a memorable poetic tapestry. Rollender manages to echo Nietzsche’s persuasions that “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses”. Bone of my Bone achieves this “Truth”.
Bone of my Bone challenges the reader to uncover the darkness beneath their veils. It reminds us to search for meaning in a world despite its harrowing destitution. This is an important poetic work which demands the reader to claw away their masks, to shock parts of their mind awake as they are too often placated by a digital world. Bone of my Bone is a dismal, chaotic yet worthwhile voyage into the “Concealed Blackness” of human experience, “You, the living / mother, shake salt from the table cloth, teach your / child to nest where it’s warm, tell your dead to head / toward whatever window is full of light” (How to Talk to your Dead Mother).
Review by Nathan Hassall