Review by Barrett Warner
MEETING BONE MAN
by Joseph Ross
Main Street Rag, 2012
P. O. Box 690100
Charlotte, NC 28227
2012, 90 pp., $15.00
Not all of us know our fathers. Joseph Ross knew his for fifty years. The 94-year-old combat veteran passed this year, a few months after Ross’ debut poetry volume Meeting Bone Man was published. In his blog post eulogy, Ross noted, “It’s hard to find photographs of my dad by himself.” Ross’s poems are a lot like his dad. The Washington, D.C., poet writes in clusters. His poems travel together like old friends. Darfur, Civil War dead, Disco Dan, Buddha, Basquiat, Haiti, and “Bone Man” himself, are a merry gang helping us to laugh and cry away the horror of our fragile mortality.
Bone Man, like his close cousin, the Mocko Jumby—a cultural icon of the West Indies—pantomimes the dark hereafter in an out-of-context college with the living present: “He’s an accordion/ of clicks and scrapes,/ the glow-in-the-dark/ skeleton from childhood’s/ Halloween parties/ come to life./ Though not exactly, to life.”
“Meeting Bone Man,” “Bone Man Loves Parties,” “Bone Man Goes to the Beach,” and “Bone Man Is Not My Friend” begin each of the four sections of the book, bearing the reader through layers of politics, metaphysics and sadness. Ross writes at the conclusion of his title poem: “we all lie down in pieces,/ in dry and tilting disarray.”
At first glance, the Darfur series looks to be that dangerous school called “poetry of witness.” These poems are about witness, but Ross is sensitive enough that what he observes is secondary to how he identifies on many levels with what he sees. The victims in this series are all children: “A boy, seven years old,/ very old for here.” Most are about the same age as Ross in his oldest memories of his dad. His job in the camps is to wash the corpses, wrap them in shrouds and wait for the UN truck to collect the bodies. In “Darfur 3: The Girl” Ross writes, “She just appeared/ as if by magic,/ this girl of twelve or thirteen.// One moment the date palm/ stood alone at the edge of the camp./ The next moment,/ she stood under it.” None are able to console her. She weeps into her rice:
She was declared “healthy.”
A strange declaration
for a girl, twelve or thirteen,
who has cried ceaselessly
for five days.
The doctor knew
the inadequacy of the declaration.
Visible wounds: none.
Psychological state: mutilated.
Cause of injuries: unknown.
Ross’s own mutilated psychological state is suggested in these lines. Grief is his invisible wound, but Ross is that rare poet capable of a genuine smile in spite of a busted face. In “The Genocide Choir,” a large group of children meet one night a week to sing, “their own voices/ and skinny handclaps/ keep them from turning to dust.” Ross has great eyes. He can find an image in any light, but he’s very effective at turning the interesting image into a metaphor, a class many recent poets have skipped. In “The Witness Trees 1,” the speaker is given a tour of Gettysburg by an elderly volunteer: “He had skin like brown construction paper/ and eyes like blue river stones,/ smooth from all that had rushed over them.” Eyes like blue river stones is the unique image; smooth from all that had rushed over them is the metaphor. The guide regularly walks with the dead, but his focus is an old cypress tree which is similar to the date palm standing alone at the edge of the Darfur camp:
a witness tree.
That’s a tree that was here even then,
it saw the battle, saw the burials.
One of death’s horrors is its anonymity. Ross’s will to live is a will to have an identity. In another Gettysburg poem, Ross mourns a grave monument: “the words Unknown 425 Bodies/ are carved neatly/ into its blue-gray face.” Now that Ross has his metaphor he begins to extend it so that the metaphor overtakes the narrative thread of the poem:
The original stone
would be furious if it could see
the use the carvers made of it.
It would have strained
and struggled to get away
the announcement of this much misery.
By writing his poems in clusters, Ross re-strings his narrative, which would otherwise be unraveled by such strong thoroughness in his metaphors. The Gettysburg cluster is followed by the “Cool Disco Dan” cluster. Dan is a graffiti artist, similar to the grave monument carvers except that Dan’s easel is “the concrete canvas soon to be/ coated in a turquoise dream/ of letters wrapping and rubbing.” And, like the guide in “The Witness Tree,” Dan “knows the fatality/ of language.”
He knows his very name
can be covered over
in one night if
he actually sleeps.
Because of this mortal knowledge,
learned in the dark,
Cool Disco Dan baptizes us
in three dimensional words
so that when we die
our names might be saved too.
The poems in the first section of “Meeting Bone Man” all want to answer what it means to be a poet. It means sadness, singing, being a guide, a talking stone, a midnight vandal painter. The last poem, “The Universal Artificial Limb Company,” answers what it means to be poetry: “Its name, painted in clean/ gold and black letters,/ arcs across the front window,/ announcing the ancient art/ of remembering what has been/ dismembered.” Poetry is a storefront in a strip mall of boarded-up stores, “not even sophisticated enough/ to call its product prosthetics” while “Whole Foods and Starbucks/ hover across the street/ waiting, plotting, maybe even grinning.”
Ross balances Bone Man’s Rice Crispy motion—snap, crackle, and pop—with the spiritual motion of his Buddha cluster. In “Buddha Breathes,” “Buddha Stands,” and “Buddha Bends,” Ross presents the ideal he aspires to be as a poet, breathing so that “every cell/ organ and drop of blood/ spins and shivers/ in ecstasy.” He writes:
So he bends,
in a way that shows
he knows the craft
of bending. His hand
reaches down and
Caresses the dirt,
adoringly, as one
lover does, carefully
preparing a place
for the other to sleep.
There are four pieces of advice an MFA has given me, pearls for which I’ve taken out student loans which will ensure I’ll die with a pitchfork in my hand as I work and work to pay them back. The first, cloches don’t wash. The second, save the adverbs for politics. The third, prepositions, like children, are best seen but not heard. The fourth, avoid using words like “love” and “crying” or the love and crying police may ticket you. Joseph Ross got a better education than I did. He learned the rare moments when these rules should be broken. Rules of any kind are irrelevant to this Eurydice who tirelessly wanders back and forth between the dead and the living, and between concrete reality and the spirit world. Meeting Bone Man is a poet’s gospel, and a blessing to all of us. Even the last poem in the collection “When the Dead Stand Up to Sing” is a kind of hymn: “At one moment their voices/ are bright, like light./ At the next, they drop like darkness./ These singers have fallen and risen,/ they have gone through/ and come out…it’s the music of light/ breaking through every crack/ in every stone.”
Ross’s political engagement and his obsession with mortality reveal a man who has evolved from liberation theology towards liberation poetry. For him, getting out of your own small town has to happen even if it has a population of four million. It isn’t about the economy. It’s about the empathy. Just reading this book makes you want to go and do something nice for someone.
Barrett Warner is the poetry editor for Free State Review. A compulsive reader and reviewer, his occasional poems and U. S. Poet Laureate lampoons have appeared in Gargoyle, Common Ground Review, Southeast Review, Slipstream, and elsewhere.