Joel Peckham has published seven books of poetry and nonfiction, including Bone Music (SFA), Body Memory (New Rivers), and Resisting Elegy (Chicago Review). Individual poems and essays have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, The Sugar House Review, Cave Wall, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Sun, and many others. With Robert Vivian, he is also co-editor of Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in American Poetry and Prose, recently released by New Rivers Press. His first Spoken Word LP, Still Running: Words and Music by Joel Peckham, will appear from EAT POEMS in the fall of 2022
“A superb collection of poems that are haunted by grief yet touched by grace.”
– Kirkus Reviews
A volume of poetry explores how art shapes connections beyond the randomness and tragedy of loss.
The title poem of Peckham’s latest collection (many pieces were previously published in literary journals) refers to clandestine recordings of jazz and rock ’n’ roll banned in the 1950s Soviet Union. Bootleggers cut discs from used X-rays, burned a hole in the center with a cigarette, and employed a recording lathe to transfer grooves from a gramophone record onto the plastic. These makeshift discs could then be played like any record, though they were short-lived and had poor sound quality. These discs were called ribs, music on ribs, bone music, or jazz on bones. This startling, potent metaphor is central to the book and its images of accident, breakage, loss, healing, and transcendence. X-rays capture moments of crisis, when the broken bones are “halted in ghostly / bloom,” but this is also the time when diagnosis and rehabilitation can begin their inherent process “the way bones do, all on / their own reaching for bone, reaching to make you / whole.” In their low-fidelity, scratchy fragility, the X-ray discs mimic how the body retains its injury, so that a once-broken bone aches in the cold. The poem then turns to the 2004 auto accident in Jordan that killed the author’s first wife and older son, an event that lies behind the entire collection. In the hospital, the speaker “lay in a hospital bed looking at the x-rays / of my shattered hip and the fiery brightness of the pins and screws / and white-hot wires and the clouds of tissue forming around them,” which tell “of choices, and / accidents.” And yet, like the jazz recorded in bone music, “an off-note, a mistake, can be embraced by the soloist.” Even overwhelming tragedy can give rise to the grace that is art; in the end, says the speaker, “Yes, these bones can sing, set all my comrades dancing, / to a ghostly tune.”
Throughout the moving collection, Peckham never suggests that the healing, soulful work of art is easy, only that it’s possible through faithful attention. One significant form of attention is listening, which ties in with the volume’s many images of music, especially improvisational music—the kind that makes art of accidents. While nearly all the pieces in the book are prose poems, they’re far from prosaic. The form works well to suggest the poet’s urgency to speak about wholeness. Techniques like alliteration and assonance supply the music of poetry, as in “Suffering Tape.” Here, the sibilants match the swoosh-y visuals of wheeling starlings and glinting fish scales: “Sun and shadow as I shook and took the / shape of starlings flocked or the flame of sunfish staring up at night / from the windshield’s blue-black pond.” Another strong throughline in these poems is stargazing and astrocartography, another kind of attention that requires seeing and making connections: “We place a thing near another thing and it throws a spark, / makes a third somehow in there and out, a process we name art (or / God?).”
A superb collection of poems that are haunted by grief yet touched by grace.
Pub Date: April 29, 2021
Page count: 90pp
Publisher: Stephen F. Austin University Press
Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021
BONE MUSIC BOOK TRAILER
Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Marshall University
Favorite line from a book
“Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?” ? Ross Gay, The Book of Delights
Passion in life
Unexpected skill or talent
I'm a pretty good singer.
BONE MUSIC: POEMS: Kirkus Star
BONE MUSIC: POEMS: Named to Kirkus Reviews' Best Books, 2021
BONE MUSIC: POEMS: Oran Robert Perry Burke Awards for Poetry, 2020
BONE MUSIC: POEMS: International Book Award--Winner, General Poetry, 2022
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