A map can be defined as “a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.” Sara Eliza Johnson’s Bone Map is a journey—a representation of a body moving through a changing world. It begins at an intersection of real life and mythology with “Fable,” a poem that introduces us to our speaker who tells us she “know[s] the names of things here/ and [she] can hold them.” We immediately trust this speaker—this cartographer—to be our pathfinder and docent, to lead the way.
This collection is driven by an internal fairy tale. The heart of each poem beats with mystery and darkness as we’re pulled through pastoral worlds with recurring images of the forest with words like blood, dark, bone, and flies. “Fable” begins, “In the forest, the owl releases a boneless cry” and the poem “Deer Rub” starts deep in that same forest, “where no one has gone,/ where rain bloats the black moss and mud.” This is death and water, dirt and burial. This is the world that exists beneath the world we tend to see.
Our speaker takes us there, to this world of the physical versus the spiritual. Take for example the poem “Elegy Surrounded by Water.” This poem is made of small couplets that allows the negative space on the page to speak as loudly as each stanza. In this poem, “each night/ is long.” Our speaker says:
trying to send you
a human sound,
which is bones
cracking to bend an arrow
back, a long whistle
across the field
of a body you remember
because it remembers
Here, the human body becomes field, becomes cemetery and burial. And what remains? What could this mean? Within the murky world of Bone Map, “This means we are built/ to ruin.” But there is hope, kind of; at least, there is a leader. The centerpiece poem “Pathfinder” breaks the world of Bone Map in two. It offers pause and direction, though it too is broken into three pieces: Primordial Sea, Primeval Forest, and Prison. Each section is timeless: simultaneously ancient and contemporary, like the bees, honeycombs, and breath that permeate this collection.
The third section of Bone Map contains a series of poems titled “Archipelago.” An archipelago can be defined as a stretch of water containing many islands. It is a forest atop a sea. It is concurrently joined and separated, like our skeletons, like these poems. It is an “Elegy Surrounded by Water,” and it is a map of bones. Our speaker is our guide leading us towards hope, no matter how bleak the world may seem.
All fairytales have an ending, no matter how dark. Bone Map doesn’t promise us a happily-ever-after, but it offers an assuredness, almost optimism. Our speaker, never lost, shows us that something like hope can be found in the connections between the separate pieces; no matter how far we feel from one another, we can hold and be held. There will be air to breathe. In the penultimate poem, “How the World Was Made,” we’re left with these words:
Everything was veined, everything
given shape and bone and muscle to fill it.
Everything became mortal but I could hold it.
I could hold it, and it held me. I heard each thing stir
awake. And I knew the answer. Take this
throat, its slender tangle. Then breathe into it.
Sara Eliza Johnson’s poetry has appeared—or is forthcoming—in a variety of places, including Best New Poets 2009, New England Review, and Boston Review. She is the recipient of a 2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, a Winter Fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and a Work-Study Scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She has also been a finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Stadler fellowships. Johnson is currently a doctoral student in the Literature & Creative Writing program at the University of Utah. Her first book, Bone Map, was selected for the National Poetry Series and was published by Milkweed Editions in 2014.