A Kind of Balm: Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz

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“Poetry is the closest thing grief has to expression in language,” wrote Ilyse Kusnetz, in a brief note between Carolyn Forché’s eloquent introduction to Angel Bones, and the searing, beautiful poetry in the book. It is the second collection by Kusnetz, who died at fifty, in 2016. She had brain cancer, and Forché’s introduction highlights craft and courage, and also serves as a thank you to fellow writer Brian Turner, Kusnetz‘s husband, who helped prepare the manuscript.

Before Angel Bones, Ilyse Kusnetz composed poetry that built strength upon strength. She won the T. S. Eliot Prize, served as guest editor for two literary magazines, and co-wrote lyrics for “Vox Humana,” which the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra premiered the year she died.

Determined not to stop breathing until she made something lasting and fine for her husband and others, Kusnetz succeeded mightily. She delineated sorrow that is piercing and deep without wallowing, and without slighting pleasure, wonder, and the specifics of longing, sight, sound and touch. Particulars accumulate and become a kind of balm, as in “The World Is Too Beautiful For Our Eyes”:

Even stillness—
___like the concentrated beacon
of a heron
___tracking small dark fish
under the surf—
___cannot save me.

These lines would be unbearable without what came before:

To hold it for a moment
___there is always a price.
Take the seashore, endless sunlight
___bursting on water—

pelicans and gulls spindive,
___and the tide’s quick shift of sand
is like absence under my feet,
__a net cinching tight
____until I stumble.
This is the world’s gift to me
___because I thought
it could be held,
___thought I wouldn’t be
burned by its beauty:
___it says

There is no place
___solid
______to stand

Beauty burns and sagacity is hard-earned, sometimes especially when one is open to what “endless sunlight” endows. Kusnetz did not flinch from confronting the fact that it “cannot save” her. It’s early in the book, and helps acclimate the reader to what is to come. It is also a fine example of how line breaks enhance and the situations words name. Separating “place,” “solid” and “stand,” puts the reader right there with her, wobbling, literally and figuratively.

In “How to Build a Stradivarius” we get exalted, spacious instructions for how to work with material the earth provides:

The masters wrote—to yield the best result,
harvest after a cold winter

the wood condensed by ice and storms
in whose gales the highest notes are born.

From summits of Balkan maple, red spruce
gathered in a valley off the Italian Dolomites,

they carved each instrument ’s alluvial curves.
Then came the varnish- one coat

of painter’s oil, another of plain resin.
Only the thinnest layers to obtain

that satin chatoyancy, that liminal reflect.
It’s said Stradivari, playing to the trees

first noticed the straight pines
like strings on a vast, divine violin

absorbing heaven’s vibrations.
The truth could be found in the song itself—

how impossible it was to tell where
the wood ceased and the song began—notes pure

as a mathematical equation. Transposing mountain.
Valley. Mountain, again.

It takes discipline, imagination, and rapture to treat trees as instruments vital to an orchestra primed to produce celestial sound. Discipline, imagination, and rapture all contribute to Kusnetz’s mastery. She instrumentalized much of what she saw and felt as if she, too, wanted “heaven’s vibration.” This music is exceptionally elevating and suggests being performed, perhaps with stringed instruments and a flute highlighting some phrases.

Oliver Sacks’s insatiable curiosity comes to mind when reading many poems here. “Scientists Prove Chemo Brain Is Real,” says exactly what it is like to experience a brain being bombarded while trying to make sense of the bombardment. I have a dear friend who is a neurologist and has brain cancer. If I share this poem with her, I know she will say, “That’s me,” because parts of our conversations have been almost identical to the first few lines:

I am
what was I
talking about
something with leaves
yesterday a tree, maybe
the fuck I don’t
remember how
to com-
plete the thought
if you put
knowing where
it would help
I meant to
and if I can’t make
meaning
narrative minced
into what
did I already say
illegi-
bility of the mind’s
word, or
doors invite
gaps,
(finish thought)—
oh windless tree
am I

Except she isn’t windless and neither are we, thanks to her.

When one faces existential upheaval, if love poetry enters the process, there are often missteps in composing. Not with Kusnetz. “Why I Will Never Take My Eyes Off You,” produces a stunning state of grace:

Because if no one’s looking, your atoms
might choose to go through both quantum
slits by accident, and we can’t have that.
Because if I look into your eyes,
even a billion years after the original
quantum experiment, I’ll find you again.
We’ll be entangled then, whether this universe
is the Matrix, or a hologram, our patterns
depending on one another to exist.

They say its consciousness that keeps us
together, space and time a cloud of illusions.
So I’ll wait as long as it takes, sweet one—
you’re mine the moment our eyes meet.

“Limestone,” puts personal, sensual pleasure in perspective and does double duty as the kind of poem environmentalists treasure:

Several million years it’s taken
the ocean’s fingers murmuring in the Burren

to smooth each rib of limestone down
into these perfect circles and ovals,

while thin, concentric bands
record the fault lines in the grain.

Here, skeins of seaweed drift
the length and breadth of the coast-

spongy cane, the winter-luster
of dulse, but deeper and more lovely

are the glowing stones of this place,
pearl gray at dusklight,

worn to a silky nub.
And tonight, like the tide

your hands on my skin-
brush and recede, then begin again.

Murmuring Burren. Winter luster of dulse, dusklight. Those soft gentle /u/ sounds, softened even more by the /l/’s and /s/’s that accompany them, power them toward hands that brush (soft /u/ with an /s/ again) with returning lust. Such an ear, such an attentively wise soul whose passion never waned.

The title poem, the penultimate piece, is a farewell that refutes the totality of conventional ideas of death, becoming the benediction Forché gives it at the end of her introduction: “Cherish this book with the tears it will deliver. Treat it as a hymnal, alive with transcendent songs.”


Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →