Sometimes as a reader of poetry, I can hear and feel a poem’s music and depth but fail to “grok” its full meaning. Alas, at these times how I wish poets delivered context, perhaps a footnote with a map of clues. Chris Haven’s debut poetry collection, Bone Seeker, denies my lazy desires. Haven’s poems ask us to explore, to go deep. If we wish to piece together Haven’s trail of poetry bread crumbs to glean their full meaning, we must seek to expand our knowledge and context. We must work for it.
The poems in Bone Seeker are diversely written as lyric, prose, and persona poems. I found the persona poems about famous women imaginative and compelling. This collection covers a sweeping range of subjects, both historical and contemporary: Love and loss, the passing of celebrities, mushroom clouds, match.com style dating, and songbirds as metaphor for extinction/climate change. A tone of seriousness and a lack of fear about addressing the difficult issues of our time runs like high tension wire through the poems in this book. For Haven to tackle such daunting themes takes courage, grit.
One such poem is “Who among you is afraid to go into the dark and empty spaces?” Set in Iraq after the U.S. offensive in 2003, the poem juxtaposes Iraqi street children with demolished buildings and unexploded bombs. “There are bullets / that sprout wings / and fly / to the heart of you.” This imagery is searing and gives readers a ring-side seat to hard reality, which we Americans often view from the comfort of remove. Another poem, “The President Declares Disaster,” addresses a nonstop litany of calamities of our country, our planet, and our century. The final line, “There’s no place to land” lands us—splat—in that hard reality, the apt sense of the never-ending. In “Jonestown,” Haven sifts through the imagined details of the 1978 Jonestown massacre, where 918 individuals (one-third children) died, mostly from taking cyanide under the direction of cult leader Jim Jones. The poem invokes the horrific. At the beginning of each stanza, the poet “kept wondering” decades later, as we do in such circumstances, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
One of Haven’s most striking poems is “Poem for the Recent Tragedy,” which relies on pro forma blank lines followed by fill-in-the-blank word choices. The poem is a script for recurring catastrophe, such as senseless gun violence and mass shootings. The poem conveys the false hope and promise, the en masse helplessness and powerlessness we in American society confront at the recurrence of these (again) incomprehensible events.
To balance the weight of poetry that tackles the dark side, Haven has given us four playful persona poems focused on women. The most important is “Bone Seeker,” the book’s title poem written about Marie Curie. The poem’s epigram reveals that “Marie Curie sometimes slept with a jar of radium by her pillow.” (This is true.) The lines in this poem go on to invent Madame Curie’s love affair with the power of radium. He writes:
I will place you near what needs to be killed
I will have you
call it a laboratory
take notes on everything
every light every drop of water
everything that moves.
Haven got this right. The collection’s introductory pages define bone seeker as “radioactive substance that tends to accumulate in the bones when it is introduced into the body.” As a female scientist in what was then the strictly male-dominated world of physics and chemistry, Marie Curie aligned herself with the power and structure (the bones) of her subject matter in order to hold her laser-focused commitment to contribute her pioneering research on radioactivity (incidentally, a term she coined).
In “Lovers Resolve, Charles and Emma Darwin,” Charles, most prominently known for the theory of evolution by natural selection, proposes to write a treatise to his wife Emma. Her response to Charles, whom she calls Charley, is that she
. . . will say
a prayer for you
one that explains how
it’s only natural
that you might see
your way to truth
selection and how
these traits of mine
one that shows how like
will help us
in this complex
into a state of perfect
adaptation. . .
Imagining such a conversation between this infamous pair requires a light touch that exhibits Haven’s poetic range. But not only that. The placement of this poem right after “Bone Seeker” begs the question: Is Haven playing with us in elevating Madame Curie’s scientific discovery while humanizing Charley Darwin? In this context, Marie Curie and Emma Darwin, both nineteenth-century figures, are stepping out of their traditional roles.
The next two poems are about women who stepped outside traditional feminine roles a century later than Curie and Darwin. In “Flannery at Lourdes,” Haven envisions the Lourdes pilgrimage the unconventional Catholic author Flannery O’Connor made on crutches in 1958. Haven writes: “You prayed for the words and to be given / only that which should be given freely.” That O’Connor would ask for words seems humorous and yet sad. (O’Connor had lupus and has written about the suffering of others she observed at Lourdes.)
“Janis Joplin’s Eulogy to the Graduating Class of Thomas Jefferson High in Port Arthur, Texas, 1960,” focuses on a pop culture icon. Haven imagines Joplin speaking to her former classmates after having died. Given the benefit of mature hindsight as well as the vantage of a higher plane, one might think Joplin might have forgiven those who bullied and tormented her during high school. However, Haven writes in a tone that is bittersweet and realistic, and also vintage Janis. The ending lines:
See, here you get to see
possibilities. I coulda died
seventeen times before that hotel room.
If that one didn’t get me I had fifty-
six more waiting. I see them like stars,
constellations of all my deaths.
You’ll get to see yours soon enough.
The hardest thing for me here?
I don’t get to sing
You? You won’t get to do
whatever shit you liked to do.
As a poet, Haven has finely honed antennae for deciphering what needs examination in contemporary culture and asks us to probe deeply our most perplexing problems. His bold approach confronts us with our own increasing anxiety over the global issues that challenge us. Haven refuses to allow us off the hook, to allow us to continue sleepwalking through our own twenty-first century dilemmas at a time when we as a society need to examine and solve them.
We can look forward to hearing a good deal more from Dr. Haven, a poet of great depth and broad range with much to say. He has that gut instinct for setting the words down right with a message that we must try to set the world right.
About the Reviewer
Suzanne Schoenfelt is a poet and author. Her work has been published in Antenna, Bear River Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Writes, San Diego Poetry Annual, and the Southwest Journal (poetry section). She spent her career as a medical writer and editor, and seeks to bridge the worlds of science and art.