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A Review of Holly Lyn Walrath’s “The Smallest of Bones”

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

By Tony Huang

The Smallest of Bones, by Holly Lyn Walrath (CLASH Books, 2021)

The Smallest of Bones constitutes a collection of poetry characterized by its succinct yet evocative nature, serving as an invitation for readers to embark on a poetic exploration of a skeletal framework meticulously constructed by Holly Lyn Walrath. With a keen poetic vision, Walrath delves into the enigmatic depths of curved ribs. Each individual poem within this collection presents an opportunity for an immersive encounter, propelling readers through ethereal realms beneath the celestial moon, engaging in discourse with spectral apparitions that metamorphose beneath the night sky, invariably leaving an indelible mark on our cognitive faculties. In essence, these verses serve as a catalyst, compelling readers to cast aside the superficial layers of societal veneer, thereby exposing the profound rawness and inherent vulnerability that underlie the tapestry of human existence.

Organized around seven significant bones—the cranium, mandible, sternum, sacrum, spine, calcaneus, and temporal—this collection extends beyond a study of osteology, as Holly Lyn Walrath swiftly asserts. While beginning with factual statements about bones, such as the cranium's support of facial structures and formation of a protective cavity for the brain, Walrath expertly maneuvers the focus towards the exploration of gender and its surrounding challenges. She reveals that linking sex based on skull features is feasible, but gender remains a distinct and separate facet of identity, shaped not by bones, but by complex societal factors.

Embedded within these verses lies an exploration of love—its weightiness, its suffocation, and the vulnerability engendered by its embrace. The narrator laments the encroachment of mankind upon the once untouched domains, yet yearns for the wildness that remains elusive. In her call to humanity, she implores not to assign excessive power/weight to the female gender, cautioning against the imposition of limitations. Here, love is painted as a heavy burden, with the narrator sinking under its weight, equating the beloved's words to stones weighing her down. Death intertwines with love throughout the collection, envisioning a future in which all that remains of their connection is black ash, akin to a post-fire tree.

A focal theme within the collection is the pain and marginal existence frequently endured by women. While not explicitly examining instances of violence against women in many poems, the mandible's introduction elucidates the prevalence of domestic violence, characterized by fractures of this bone. Walrath highlights the curved nature of the mandible, drawing comparisons to a womb, and underscores the significant impact of violence and decay on this bone, often the sole recognizable remnant in human remains.

Life's transitory nature comes to the forefront in these pages—nothing eternal, only ephemeral. The narrator reminds readers of the fleeting nature of existence, urging us to cherish the present before its inevitable demise. Conflicting forces underscore the fabric of love and beauty, transforming them into transient entities, to be cherished and simultaneously destroyed. This theme resonates profoundly through the exploration of love's evanescence. The narrator mourns the departure of a beloved, acknowledging that once gone, their memory will fade into oblivion, leaving only the narrator as the custodian of remembrance. The lover becomes a specter, standing silently by the bed's edge, bestowing a tender kiss upon the narrator's hair while she sleeps. This evocative portrayal emphasizes the bittersweet nature of love, wherein even its most intimate and cherished moments inevitably vanish, leaving only lingering traces of ephemeral tenderness.

Yet, amidst the treachery, fragments of hope emerge—those elements that resonate with our shared humanity. In one poem, the narrator implores us to join her in blowing on a dandelion, to participate in a shared act of wishing for something more, an acknowledgement of the inherent need for aspiration in our lives. The collection draws upon these reflections, exploring love, pain, doubt, and life's treacheries as the narrator digests these experiences, ultimately concluding that all will find clarity in the end, both love and pain, once death has settled upon us.

Tony Huang is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review. He is also the founder of Metacircle Fellowship, Metacircle (Hong Kong) Culture and Education Co., Ltd. and Metaeducation. He works as a guest-editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. His poems and translations have appeared in Mad Swirl, The Hong Kong Review, The Best Small Fictions Anthology Selections 2020, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, SmokeLong Quarterly, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly, Yangcheng Evening News and other places. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.

Copy editor: Nancy He

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