Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson

Reviewed By

A bone map is a visual representation of an excavation site. Archaeologists use them to understand where and how fossils were deposited and preserved, and where they lie in relation to one another. Sara Eliza Johnson’s first collection, Bone Map, can also be viewed as the map of an excavation: of truths and old tales; of the ways we do violence to the world and to one another; of losses—natural and not—that accrue over time; of a way forward despite it all. Her tools are not trowels and brushes, but rather re-castings of familiar stories, deft use of image and metaphor, and language rich with texture and precision.

Bone Map begins in the realm of story with the poem “Fable.” It begins in certainty—“I know the names of things here / and I can hold them”—but veers quickly into uncertainty with a gesture of love undercut by foreboding: a father places his hand on top of his son’s head “not knowing / what his hands will be made to do / to other men” (3). Unlike in traditional fables, there is no lesson here, no glad aphorism to carry forward.

This detail is emblematic of the gestures of return and re-imagination that anchor the book. Johnson uses archetypal tropes—fable, fairy tale, creation myth—and recasts them to create a world bleaker than that of the original stories, but also, we sense, more accurate. In “Märchen,” Johnson hints at the truth-seeking purpose that undergirds any re-telling, and suggests that the old stories no longer hold: “How did the story go?” her speaker asks; then the reply:

How dark it was inside the wolf,

which had begun as a clump
of darkness inside another wolf.
Then the child climbed out its belly

shining, without a name—
with only a red cap by which to call her
and the animal guts in her hands (10).

Furthermore, early in the collection Johnson makes clear that she’s interrogating violence, loss, and separation on both a global and an interpersonal level:

…long after this morning
when the country wakes to another war,

when two people wake in a house
and do not touch each other (4).

If we had any doubt of our complicity in creating the world of Bone Map, the poem “The Last Przewalski’s Horse” dismisses that doubt. The Przewalski’s Horse was, until hunted to extinction, the last remaining species of wild horses (19). In this poem, the last Przewalski’s Horse is killed. The shooter harvests what’s wanted, then leaves the rest to rot. Here, violence and loss are not just unfortunate elements of life, they are erasers of whole species. And we hold the gun.

Still, these poems don’t surrender entirely to the grim world they construct. A three-part poem that comprises the book’s second section becomes a pivot into wayfaring. “Pathfinder” is both a recasting of creation myth, and a re-enactment of evolution. The poem begins in primordial time, in the sea, where “We’ve become blind / and bioluminescent” (30). It next moves onto land, into the forest where “the mind must grow into itself” and language blooms:

Open your mouth—you animal,
not yet machine—and say
anything, speak your way home… (31).

In last section of “Pathfinder,” our growing cognition is made clear in the repetition of the word think and the poem urges us toward transformation:

Think the prison
into a garden,

your shadow
into a basket to gather
all the apples (32).

“Pathfinder” prepares us for the third and final section of the book, which involves a lyric journey based on the mythic sea voyage of Saint Brendan. These poems undertake a search for comfort, safety, and human connection, as in the final lines of the poem “Question,” which is in conversation with the well-known May Swenson poem of the same title:

I am trying to find the breach
but there is no end to your widening
body where is your latch Where
is the moment you touch a body (37).

Sara Eliza JohnsonIn “Question,” Johnson also demonstrates her facility with form. While many poems in the book are in common free-verse configurations—couplets or straightforward blocks of left-justified text—other poems move out of such architectures into gaps and wavering margins. These looser forms suggest the dream-like searching and uncertainty their content requires.

As the book continues, the world is not made gentle or beautiful, but there is some relief. In “Instructions for Wintering on the Ice Field” life takes hold in the cracks:

But you will thaw
and part your skin
for a single, black tendril
It will grow
as if through stone… (46).

The final poems of Bone Map make repairs: “Cut the rot from the apple you find. / Mend the hole in your coat” (58). Crucially, the speaker claims a voice: “When I came to the city / my tongue rode up in my throat: an outlaw come back…” (56). I say “crucially” because part of what seems essential in Bone Map—with its re-tellings, its tenuous journeys—is to search for that which is accurate and to speak it, to document it. In other words, to map it.

As the book ends, we’ve come through a world of exquisite language and image. There is still danger and disaster—“Soon the whitest sky will shatter” —but there is also communion and a stark beauty: “And I will come by your house, carrying / bread, eggs, apples. Milk colder than the moon” (60). In the hands of a less-skilled poet this arc may have been too tidy, but Johnson’s exacting and muscular use of language and image, as well as the psychic environment she creates, makes every comfort provisional, therefore, believable. To engage with Bone Map is to take stock of our lives and our world, and to question the stories we tell ourselves about them. This is a brutal and beautiful book.

Molly Spencer is a poet, critic, and editor. Her debut collection, If the House (2019), won the Brittingham Prize judged by Carl Phillips. A second collection, Hinge (2020) won the Crab Orchard Open Competition judged by Allison Joseph. Molly’s poetry has appeared in Blackbird, FIELD, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Her critical writing has appeared at Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, The Writer's Chronicle, and The Rumpus, where she is a senior poetry editor. She teaches writing at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. More from this author →