Book Review: The Smallest of Bones by Holly Lyn Walrath

Holly Lyn Walrath’s The Smallest of Bones is a slim volume of poetry that is carefully and evocatively built along the skeleton of the human body—the bones that protect our organs, enable our mobility, and shape our form.

These tiny poems, rather like the small bones themselves, delve into the themes of love, trauma, relationships, selfhood, death, hauntings, and darkness, uncovering the vulnerability and fragility of the human psyche. Beginning as a meditation on bodies and the bones that make them, Walrath’s collection raises important questions about autonomy, self-acceptance, and freedom in a society where people are more often than not policed for their bodies, in both direct and insidious ways.

Several of the poems in this volume are short, perhaps not more than two or three lines, yet the sparseness of the words invites the reader to fill in the gaps with their stories and experiences. The book is divided into seven sections, named after important bones in the skeletal system, and each segment begins with a short introduction that offers a medical definition, anthropological insight, a statistic, or even a reference to particular folklore that highlights how science and culture often conspire together to reinforce stereotypes about the sexes or justify the patriarchal oppression of women and other genders.

After all, as these poems patiently remind us, the body isn’t just the site of love-making but also of untold violence.

Each fracture or injury is often a chronicle of the domestic violence and sexual assault that women silently carry, even as they mould their bodies under the male gaze. At one point, the unnamed narrator remarks,

‘you put me on the windowsill
and then you said things like, jump little bitch
So I guess what I’m saying is, I know how to jump
for men’

(p. 55)

Or consider this verse that evokes the traditional imagery of love and war, with floral metaphors, highlighting how for so many women, a belief in true love and happily-ever-after often ends in disappointment and disillusionment:

‘there was this girl I knew who believed in love
and she took up arms, she took up arms
but when it came time to fight all she found
in her arms was a bouquet of pain’

(p.36)

Of course, in the genre of poetry ‘less is more’ is a good maxim to follow. On my first reading, I felt the poems traced the trajectory of a broken relationship between two people, colored by instances of both love and hurt, and its haunting afterlife—some bones might heal, while (depending on the circumstances) others may be beyond repair.

In subsequent readings, each stanza seemed to point to other stories, and other histories. Like a drowned corpse bobbing up to the surface, one poem, in particular, brought to mind the tragedy of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, as in the following lines:

‘I sink myself in the river at dawn
your words are the stones
in my pockets’

(p.8)

Another unique aspect of this collection (that came as a lovely surprise) is how the very contents page—the skeleton of a book, so to speak, comprising the first lines of the poems—reads like a beautiful and heartbreaking elegy on love and hurting (‘if loving you means I must die/ come back to haunt me’). From the ordering of the verses to the layout, the author has chosen each word with careful consideration.

Thus, the poems in this collection told so simply and lucidly, have a tendency to creep up on the reader, burrowing in the dark crevices of one’s soul, and offering what great art often does—illumination in the dark. Scintillating and powerfully evocative, The Smallest of Bones is a strange and curious volume of speculative poetry that definitely deserves a space on your shelf.

Verdict: 4/5

About the Author: Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Liminality, and Analog. She is the author of Glimmerglass Girl (Finishing Line Press, 2018), winner of the Elgin Award for best speculative chapbook, and Numinose Lapidi, a chapbook in Italian from Kipple Press. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. You can find her canoeing the bayou in Houston, Texas, on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath, or at www.hlwalrath.com.

Buy the Book:
http://www.hlwalrath.com/smallestofbones.html
https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781944866952

Archita Mittra is a freelance writer and reviewer, whose work has appeared in Tor, Strange Horizons, The Portalist, Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere.
She’s always open to reviewing books of poetry, comics, or novels in the genres of YA, fantasy, sci-fi, magic realism, and speculative fiction, as well as non-fiction books on magic. So if you would like your book to be reviewed on her blog, do feel free to contact her on Twitter.

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