The Book of Skeletons, by Rachel Vigier
Reviewed by Matthew J. Trafford
When approaching a contemporary poetry collection, the reader must always question the relationship between the poetic subject matter and the real details of the poet’s life. Biography can be a red herring when interpreting the mysteries of an individual poet’s work. In the case of The Book of Skeletons, however, biography deeply and inextricably informs the material and how we must read it: Rachel Vigier was present for the 9/11 attacks, and she has written about her experience.
George Elliott Clarke makes the following statements, quoted on the book’s back cover: “The magisterial beauty of this poetry originates in Rachel Vigier’s respect for the tragedy of 9/11. Like the classical poets, she knows that apocalypse demands austere reverence. These elegiac poems resonate with the authority of witness, of survival, because the poet was there” (emphasis his). I’m not inclined to argue. Vigier recreates her experiences of that day — reverently, austerely — and of the impact that followed in her own life, the life of her family, and that of her fellow New Yorkers.
And it’s good poetry. Take “Shoes,” for example, one of the first poems in the book, in which a man (paramedic? nurse? doctor?) washes her feet outside the emergency room of a hospital. There’s close attention paid to sound, alliteration and assonance working overtime, taut tension in the lines, and brilliant breaks:
He looked at me
like Mary Magdalene must have looked
at the stranger that time,
kneeling and weeping, lifting her hair.
He handed me
first one shoe, then the other
and I held the dusty pair, tight, to my chest
as he held my feet
over a pail, but gently, so I wouldn’t feel
the cut of the rim against my skin
only his hands, dipping and pouring
water, his face shining up.
Reaching for more than the mechanics of language, Vigier infuses the poem with meaning beyond the literal — a woman being treated during a tragedy — with the reference to Mary Magdalene. Suddenly, her decision not to name the man or his profession can be seen a new light — the light of “his face shining up,” — as a suggestion of a Christ-like aspect. This associative gesture, placing one foot-washing beside another, a religious saviour beside a secular one, gives the reader room to compare, room to make up her own mind. In short, it gives the reader autonomy, the ability to do more than simply witness.
But to focus exclusively on this collection’s exploration of 9/11 would be to do it a disservice. There is much more here. In fact, some of the strongest poems in the collection are those which examine motherhood (both in the context of the disaster and outside of it) and those that deal with history. Vigier has an unflinching eye and a sharp mind, and is unafraid to take her conceits through to their endpoints, no matter the emotional consequences. One lovely example of such writing is “The Bath,” a poem which explores something as abstract as time through the detailed tactile reality of a child’s body:
The head turns in my palm and my body tenses
denting the skull on the sink’s hard edge.
It doesn’t feel like a skull, really.
Skull is hard boney tough but this infant skull
malleable cartilaginous like the body of a jellyfish
would take the impress of fingerprints
from the faintest press and the fontanelle,
pulsing at the top, would burst like a fleshy peach
from the lightest indent of a thumb.
Seven years later, she’s in the bath and this time
I’m washing her hair, listening as she tells
of Lincoln’s assassination. Of course,
she holds her own head and it’s a real skull now,
sutures fused, fontanelles closed.
She’s precise in the telling: how Booth waited
for the act with the loudest laughter,
the great jaw shaking open with each guffaw
before the shot entered the skull
right there, she points to her own temporal bone
circling the knob twice before drawing a line
into the cranial vault to the exit
through her frontal bone. Lincoln died the next morning
and Booth broke his leg jumping to the stage,
she finishes, as I rub her head harder
to erase the dotted lines of death
she’s traced there. My body hasn’t forgotten
its instinct to guard though I know it’s not enough
against this history, and her coming of age.
It’s the shift of power from the mother to the daughter which makes the poem so haunting, tender, and honest.
The cover of the book features the cartilaginous body of the jellyfish mentioned in “The Bath,” while the eponymous poem “The Book of Skeletons” is about this same daughter, teaching her mother about bones. There is a way in which these poems seem to reveal the poet’s truest interests, leaving the reader to wonder what the collection might have looked like if the disaster had never struck New York. There’s also reference made to a notebook lost in the rubble, in which the speaker “had been writing poems for a book about my sister’s disappearance.” Thus the reader experiences a sense of wonder and loss for the poems that could have been — which lends an emotional richness to an already powerful collection.
The singular aspect of the book that puzzles is the way in which the poems are ordered. The collection begins with twelve poems more or less directly related to the events of 9/11. While we are not sure exactly what happened to the speaker or who she is, it’s clear that she was there, her life was at risk, she was injured. Then the poems — with no section break — shoot in an entirely different direction, starting with “In the Ossuary: St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.” While there is a kind of associative link created through the imagery of dust, rubble, and bone, the poem seems too different from its predecessors to be placed by their side without comment or white space. Then a whole series of poems with widely different elements: history, family, Zurich and Florence, Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan — until gradually we are brought back to New York, to 9/11 and the time that followed. In the end, it feels as though the collection itself — the poetic structure being built floor by floor, poem by poem — was destroyed by the disaster of 9/11. While this is a powerful metaphor, the decision to bookend these other subjects with the New York poems baffles. Would it not have been stronger to start in the historical past, musing on dust and violence, then move to modern day New York, focusing on a woman and her family, and then to see that woman and her children put through the horrors of 9/11?
Where the ordering succeeds is in choosing to put “How to Speak” at the very end of the collection. This is a stunning, searing prose poem in nine sections. It finally tells the reader — directly and articulately — what happened to the female “I” of the book on September 11th, 2001. More importantly, it takes the reader through the hardest ordeal of all — grappling with whether poetry matters in the face of such a disaster, chronicling the struggle of the poet to find the courage and the hope to write again. It is here that Vigier’s powers of observation, honesty, and witness rise to their full potential, resulting in a breath-taking poem that forces the reader to reevaluate everything just read, and start over again from the beginning.