Throughout “The Bone that Sang” Claire Booker presents wry, compassionate observations on human life from a witness’s viewpoint. The tidiness of the poems often contrasts with the life being examined. Abdul Rahman Haroun was a refugee from Sudan, formerly a British colony, who risked running through the EuroTunnel to get from the Sangatt camp in France to England. In “Abdul Haroun Almost Medals at Dover” it re-imagines him as an Olympian who,
“dodges surveillance cameras as if they’re bullets –
that’s been a useful training – then it’s a steady race
along the track with the breath of family behind him.
Pace-setters hurtle past at 100 mph, sipping lattes
as they read the latest. At 28 miles he hits the wall.”
A breathless race through a refugee’s journey, the short vowels and double constants create a sense of urgency. Readers discover there’s “no podium” and don’t get to find out what happened to Haroun. However, there’s a rumour the “Brits love an underdog” and a hint that the Brits’ sentimental concern for animals might translate into concern for humans. Its light touch belies its subject matter: the dangerous journey, the risk to his life and sacrifices made to make it to England.
“At Risk Child” includes the succinct observation, “Now that her baby’s been taken away,/ she’s planning another.” A child considered to be ‘at risk’ means that social workers are involved, the child might still be with her original family or might be in the care system. Either way she’s unlikely to have been shown how to be a mother. Instead of helping her achieve that, her own child has been taken into care. Her reaction is to try to have another, which in turn is likely to be taken into care too. The system doesn’t allow her to learn how to be mother so it will continue to let her have children who are taken away. The bureaucracy and paperwork of the care system doesn’t allow workers time to teach her to be a mother, effectively punishing her for the lack of parental care she had as a child.
This lightness of touch continues throughout “All Hallows’ Eve” where spirits of loved ones are thought to revisit their previous homes. It starts with a series of supersititions, leave a dropped spoon, don’t boil cabbage, set out food and space to dance and ends,
“Your empty chairs will beguile them.
Let them lose themselves in the pleasing shine
of linen and tableware; the niceties
of salt. What does it matter if their glasses
never drain, they plates remain stubbornly heaped?
They have things to tell you.”
These visitors can only admire the food, but the welcome is to prevent mischief and hopefully they will leave pleasant messages instead of opening old feuds or guilt-tripping the living.
Most of the poems do not feel like personal poems, rather the poet taking on the role of witness and observer. Two involve Amma-ji, a note explains Amma-ji means dearest mother/mother-in-law. Both have a feeling of tenderness. In “Life Support”, Amma-ji and the narrator watch nature programmes,
“The Emperor penguin on his egg: if it broke
we’d watch him warm a smooth, round rock instead.
Now they tell us you’ve been dead all week –
that your lips twitch from intubation,
your fingers grip mine out of primitive habit.
I tell them: go, let me incubate my rock.”
The Emperor penguin broods a substitute rock because the rest of the flock need him to stay with them and play his part in keeping them all collectively warm. If those who lost eggs all left to return to the seas, too few would remain to allow all to survive. He uses the rock to mimic his fellow penguins. The life-support machines allow Amma-ji to mimic life while the poem’s narrator has to adjust to life without her.
“The Bone that Sang” is tender, wryily humoured and humane in the treatment of its subjects. Claire Booker writes lyrical poems with compassion, allowing readers to construct the stories they tell.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.