The benefit of a book of new and selected poems from what a poet has written over a lifetime is threefold:
You can see the development and progression of the poet’s work from youth to maturity.
You can understand the themes and ideas the poet has grappled with over the course of decades.
Jarman, Centennial Professor of Literature at Vanderbilt University, has previously published nine poetry collections, from 1978 to 2007. He’s received numerous recognitions and prizes for his work. And in Bone Fires, we have a broad selection of four decades of poetry brought together for reading, reflection, and enjoyment.
I’ve read several of Jarman’s collections before, but had the pleasure of encountering poems I hadn’t read in this volume. What they all share in common is the wondrous sense of the sacred in the commonplace, as well as the twin themes of faith or belief and doubt. A considerable number of the poems are taken from Jarman’s own experiences and those of his family.
This poem, “After Disappointment, ” is from Questions for Ecclesiastes (1997):
To lie in your child’s bed when she is gone
Is calming as anything I know. To all
Asleep, her books arranged above your head,
Is to admit that you have never been
So tired, so enchanted by the spell
Of your grown body. To feel small instead
Of blocking out the light, to feel alone,
Not knowing what you should or shouldn’t feel,
Is to find out, no matter what you’ve said
About the cramped escapes and obstacles
You plan and face and have to call the world,
That there remains these places, occupied
By children, yours if lucky, like the girl
Who finds you here and lies down by your side.
The poem is classic Jarman—relationships, family, closeness, a sense of loss and yet a sense of being found as well, faith and doubt existing side by side, like “the girl / Who finds you there and lies down by your side.”
A poem I hadn’t encountered before, “Miss Urquhart’s Tiara” (1990), tells the story of two children on an outing with a family friend, who unexpectedly has to explain why she never married, and it has everything to do with a tiara. It’s the kind of story that a child would remember, years later, and I suspect there’s some connection to Jarman’s own experience as a child.
Another poem, “The Excitement” (2004), is about a grandfather given to believe in ghosts, in addition to the Holy Ghost. His belief plays out in the common place of everyday life, and yet becomes “the peak moment in family history.”
Bone Fires is a wonderful volume, a summation of the work Mark Jarman has produced to date, a volume that explores all those threads that create the tapestry of a life, the threads that hold strong in faith as well as the threads that unravel in doubt. Yet it is still a beautiful tapestry.