The title of Chris Haven’s Bone Seeker is striking even before one turns the title page to reveal the collection’s namesake: a “radioactive substance that tends to accumulate in the bones when it is introduced into the body.” The volume opens into a collection of poems varied in diction, realism, and form—masterfully employing both the fantastic and the quotidian—united by their obsession with endings.
What caught my attention first in Bone Seeker was the understated pathos of its subjects. Haven is never sentimental, and it is just this quality that allows the collection to shift its weight effortlessly between felt heartache and detached observation. In “The City of Aleppo,” the speaker juxtaposes his aged mother’s fall and the fall of Aleppo, telling suffering as a story that we share in common. Likewise, “Bounty" tells of a woman gathering up leftover food at a reception to take home. She is hungry and determined not to waste what she calls a “blessing.” When she spills some in the process, the speaker observes, “I can tell / she misses the spilled food more / than she will enjoy the food she kept safe”—lines that speak on behalf of all regret ever felt. The poem’s conclusion makes us ache for a world full of goodness we are powerless to preserve:
When I walk out of the building, it is spring.
In my neighborhood, the magnolias
have already begun to wilt.
They are too much. The ground can scarcely hold
the sad ears of their petals.
There are never enough baskets.
Haven’s use of form is one of the most spellbinding features of this collection. A few traditionals are in play here, with couplets and a Golden Shovel holding their own amongst free verse. But it is when a poem becomes experiential that Haven’s craft shines brightest. “Interrogative,” comprised of a brief four-line stanza and a mass of corresponding footnotes on said stanza, not only illustrates question-asking but demands, in Rilke-esque fashion, that the reader perform the act of asking herself. In “Poem for the Recent Tragedy,” at once whimsical and sardonic, the reader is provided with a word bank and invited to fill in the blanks of a stock speech that begins “How could ________ have happened here?”
Just as delightful is Haven’s eclectic subject matter. A wide range of intelligence is on display in Bone Seeker as Haven draws from scientific phenomena like nuclear fusion and mushroom clouds, writes as Janis Joplin (“Janis Joplin’s Eulogy to the Graduating Class of Thomas Jefferson High in Port Arthur, Texas, 1960”) and Emma and Charles Darwin (“Lovers Resolve, Charles and Emma Darwin”), and even offers some subtle political commentary (“What Water Does in Pennsylvania”). One of my favorites in the collection, “The Black Hole Uploads a Match.com Profile,” somehow captures the sexy, come-hither voice of a dating profile while conjuring the desperation and loneliness of a black hole doomed to singleness. Realism here, too, is variable; Haven keeps the collection lively by interspersing poems that are grounded in the everyday, like bathing children and buying milk, with pieces that spin with elements of the fantastic: children suddenly appear to men who are waking out of oblivion; girls fall into volcanoes; a couple gives birth to War itself. Especially lovely is the speculative “The Litany of the Body,” where the speaker considers how we will give account for the use of our bodies after our lives are over, part by part, beginning with “the fragile knuckle / of the index finger”:
like a movie the choices will come back
which means all the things you’ve done with this part
of your gift and the things undone and never
considered alike. This account will not
be full of regrets you will have moments
of terrible pride.
Some might call anxiety, too, a certain kind of obsession over endings—when they will inevitably land, who they will take first, how the hell we can prevent them. In my experience, hyperfixation on these questions is a common side effect of pandemics. Given the exhaustion many of us feel after over a year of diligent worrying, one might imagine it anxiety-provoking to read Bone Seeker in 2021, artful as its poems may be. Yet having become an anxiety connoisseur in the past year: after taking my heart rate for the eighth time of the day (high), I sat down to read Haven’s collection. “Jonestown,” a particularly wrecking piece, demonstrates the obsessive attempt to understand senseless tragedy, beginning each stanza with the phrase “I kept wondering,”:
I kept wondering if it was an accident
if they didn’t know
wondering if the parents didn’t know
what the children
I kept wondering
why their tongues didn’t stop
It was at this point that I noticed myself breathing more easily. I felt for my pulse, which was—for the first time in hours—slow, steady.
Nothing about a cultic massacre calming my heart rate makes any sense, except for the fact that Bone Seeker refuses to indulge in anxiety when it considers the brokenness of the world. As the speaker of “The Boy Shows the Girl His Country” observes, “The tiny things will kill you. / They can’t be stopped, so don’t worry.” Prima facie, this is cynical advice, but there is a freedom to it, too: Bone Seeker is able to circumvent the frantic, arrogant idea that, given enough time, data, and energy, I alone can deliver myself from our common fate. Without that unreasonable hope, we are each freed to shrug off our instinct for self-preservation and turn outward instead of inward, to run our fingers over the textures of a variety of endings and try them on for size, letting even the ones that are not ours slowly accumulate like radiation in our bones.
Purchase Bone Seeker here.
Veronica Toth is fascinated by the interconnectedness of things. She studied creative writing and psychology at Taylor University, earned an MA in Literature and Cultural Theory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and has been trying to integrate disparate disciplines ever since. She currently teaches high school English and ethics at University Liggett School in Michigan. Veronica’s work appears in Rock & Sling, Windhover, and online at The Other Journal.
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