Book Review

In How to Be a Maquiladora, Sheila Black demonstrated her gift for using details to create images that evoke the life and environment of a specific locale. In House of Bone, her first major collection of poetry, Black paints with a much broader stroke. Not only does House of Bone, cover a much wider range of topics and experiences, but the particularities that she describe also seem to begrudgingly conceal the universal in the particular. This collection is also a much more personal book. While individual poems in Maquiladora, such as "Desert Life," remind the reader that the poet was no mere observer but a part of that environment about which she wrote, in House of Bone, Black's own experiences provide the grist for the poems.

In the opening lines of the first poem in the collection, "Objects Waiting to be Dangerous" Black lets us know that language, and issues of communication loom large in House of Bone. She asks:

Do I get tired of the stories
I know or the ways
I have of telling them

describing herself as

pecking like a woman who can't find the key
to her house but is sure its right in front of her,
all she needs to do is put out her hand
and she will touch it.

In the last stanza, she answers her own question providing a rationale for writing:

when you find the right way to tell a story
the words click into place,
and all the old truths are reborn,
the silk trees with their tremulous flowers,
the brave swallows,
the grains of dust on the road,
objects waiting to be dangerous.

Unfortunately, that key, that connection is often not found. Much of the book is spent searching for a way to obliterate that distance between experience and language. Like the Medeival mystics Black searches for:

the act of
living in this world without the beat
between as it were the words themselves that
could carry you over.

To become featureless, to become the words,
the notes, to become the blue light
of the Bitterroot eating it way up into
the dark pines, the way the sun moves through
like a shearing of glass wings.

There is nothing mystical or vague about Black's poetry, however. Her poems are rooted in desire, emotion, and the sensual world.

If there is a thread of disillusionment in her work it is that those dreams, desires, emotions come in conflict with the physical reality of the world. In one of the finest poems "Ghost Season," Black explores this conflict in depth. As fall approaches, the speaker of the poem says, "the time of the dead draws near." Wasps symbolize that impulse for the sensual in the face of death.

They flit along the clothesline among
the muggy towels, slick sheets, lick
sweat off faded clothespins,
crowd the curved bell of the pomegranates

and again,

They swoop and dive.
This is the season when you have
to be careful or they will sting, drawn
by the smell of flesh,
more ravenous the closer they get to dying.

Colliding with this linear view of life is the myth of Persephone - the cycle of death and rebirth - and the paradoxical fact that death itself gives meaning to life. Often that meaning is in the zen-like observation, "I hang shirts and skirts...count onions I have chopped." With deftness Black intertwines the images of wasp, pomegranate and woman attending to the concrete necessities of life to create both an intense longing for the physical and the pull of those other realities, the intimations of which even our imagination fall short.

In poem after poem, Black explores this tension and, though it is really difficult to single individual poems out of this outstanding collection, but "Hyssop," "New Jersey Highway" and "Tierra Cruzada" would certainly be among them. Only occasionally, do her poems seem so imbued with a sense of defeat by "the real world" that not even her imagination can overcome the flatness that she sees in her daily life. One of those is "Hangover." Washing dishes, she observes:

I never minded it
believing there was always work to be done...
convinced in the ruins I would uncover
like Lazarus raised from his tomb,
the new person
I would surely become. It was not like that
this morning when I took my hands out of the water.
I was only a forty-year old woman,
pouring a cup of coffee,
unlatching the door to get the paper.

Most of the poems in the collection, though, see life as a much more nuanced proposition.

Viewed as disability literature, the structure of House of Bone is that of a triptych. Since the mid-1990's many writers with disabilities, including Kenny Fries, Jim Ferris, and Stephen Kuusisto have chosen to leave no doubt about their disability by leading off with a string of poems center around their own physical conditions and related experiences. Others, such as Floyd Skloot in Music Appreciation have chosen to draw their reader into their poetry, establishing a relationship with the reader before introducing the subject of disability. Black takes Skloot's approach. In the first section of the book, there is no hint of her disability. The middle panel of the book, however, opens up with "Reconstruction," followed by her haunting poem "What You Mourn", leaving no doubt that the writer has a disability that has influenced both her perceptions and her work. The third section, one again, makes no direct references to disability. The effect of this approach is to cast disability as just one of the ways in which we are both limited and challenged by the corporeality of our existence. Language, especially poetry and story telling are ways of meaning-making which, if they do not allow us to transcend the world, at least help us to give some shape to our longings. In Blacks own words, the poems in House of Bone are:

random pieces of the real and beautiful world I have stolen
and turned over in my dreaming hands.

House of Bone is available from CustomWords Press.