Book Review

While the title of Bruce Bond’s Scar may bring to mind the physical index of a bodily injury, the metaphor expands beyond the corporeal into the lasting marks that language and music, emotional trauma, and even spirituality make upon the self. The accumulation of numbered, unrhymed sonnets in the collection tug at memories and sensations in order to create the scar, to encourage the skin or tongue or ear or soul to use whatever material it can to protect the site of the wound. And yet there is an artistic paradox here: wherever a scar forms, nothing else can grow. The sealed-over rupture, often inflexible, stands out from the seamless landscape of skin or recollection. In each of these poems, then, Bond stitches and restitches each physical or psychological scar back to its attendant memory, grafting, in a sense, what can continue to grow. To follow the metaphor, the result is an attempt to reopen various kinds of wounds as a final effort to heal.

In service of this healing, the first section, entitled “Lost Language,” establishes a generative tension between music and language, a tension the poet uses to attune the reader to a particular kind of listening. While all poems require that the reader listen carefully, Bond uses the sonnet structure to both interrogate the form and transcend it, much in the way that a contemporary experimental composer might a single note or motif. What the poet and the composer have in common, the poet suggests, is the index of the aural that writing (both text and musical notation)—a kind of scar—makes upon the page. In the opening of the twenty-ninth poem, the speaker demonstrates the twin impermanence of the meanings to which language ambiguously points and the ephemerality of music:

Isn’t every language a little lost.
Lost as in a child at the zoo, or
wagers lost, or a boat without oars
in a sea of music. Lost, as songs
are lost to the air that made them.
The voice of the beast in the bag
of me, it is in there, in the language
and its need to speak the cry before
I pour my expectations in.

Here, and throughout the collection, the need to express oneself and the inadequacy of language as a suitable medium find a common locus in childhood. The lost “child at the zoo” is, in this poem, an illustration of a larger philosophical point, but when taken together with the many other poems that describe the death of a father and then a mother, as well as the speaker’s own birth and the many types of “scars” that that birth leaves on both mother and child, that child becomes the body upon which language and song—both of which are cries—begin their wounding work. The “expectations” that we pour into language are, here, a constant psychic reopening of the wound, as our attempts to arrive at perfect understanding with the other is doomed to perpetual disappointment. Even music, which eclipses language, is “lost to the air,” becoming only the memory of listening, which opens a perpetual ache in the speaker to hear it again. The original hearing, in which a new type of listening as well as an understanding of the formal structures upon which music and nature are built, can never be repeated; the speaker has experienced a kind of birth into listening that leaves its own scar on the listener.

In the second section, which shares a title with the collection, the speaker’s interrogation of language and pursuit of the original wound goes even further back to a primordial beginning:

The fruit of human harvest is a scar. Look
down, and you look away. Your mother calls,
she waits, one day she dies, and the chimes
of your closet take back their black jacket.
But there she is, where they cut you into life.
If I could talk serious of Eden, I would begin
with a scar, a cry turned darkest kindness
without creed. This is not a dream. Look up,
and you disappear, you answer, the wound
you wear pins you to your gut. In an Eden
of great surprise, panic turns to laughter.
Breathing gathers its flock. If you could see her,
this yard would tear its roots from earth and rise.
Then pause, suspended, tentacled, exposed.

Birth, here, is its own small expulsion from Eden, an eviction from an existence of perfect communication—one human literally living inside another, with no need to speak to get what one needs to survive—into one of language and death. The “wound you wear” may refer to the navel or (or perhaps and) to a caesarean scar, a double visual reminder of expulsion and one that tethers the child to its mother. What happens, then, when the mother’s body dies and is put back into the ground? In the speaker’s yearning imagination, the yard, here another diminished Eden, would return to its prelapsarian “roots,” figuratively transcending the fallen landscape, and yet even that miraculous event would create a rupture. The “fruit of human harvest,” despite its pastoral or natal connotations, is actually a subconscious reminder of the original estrangement from paradise, a wound that, “exposed,” will never fully heal.

The third section of the book, “Narcissus in the Underworld,” the speaker enlists both Dante and the Internet in his evocation of the Hell he enters after the moment in which “Somewhere in the middle of the night, / my brother called, and I became an orphan.” Just as Dante uses the figure of Narcissus to bring his own avatar closer to an understanding of the Christian Trinity, the speaker in these final poems must “descend” into a landscape of false images, of misplaced self-love and misplaced human connection to transcend them all and lose himself in something close to the divine:

Then I was descending a flight of stairs
to take a chair at the internet café,
to join the others, heads bowed, ears wired,
mouthing messages to the no one there.
Can you hear me, someone asked, and so
I turned, listened, looked the other way.
The great intellectual breeze that moves
through all things, it moved. It withered.
I love that moment a stranger speaks in
your direction at someone on the other
side. You become, if not transparent,
a dark reflective surface. A bead of ink,
an open pupil. Can you hear me, asks
a voice somewhere, and yes, I say. I can. 

The “intellectual breeze” of Coleridge’s “Eolian Harp”—for him a metaphor for the origins of divine poetic creation—has, for the speaker, “withered” into WiFi (although the abbreviation obscures the metaphor inherent in “Wireless Fidelity”). Is it possible, in this modern Hell of “fetishes, rings, movies, blogs,” to transform the kind of self-love that the Internet thrives upon (the computer screen mirroring our darkest desires) into Dante’s God’s all-love? Like Dante, the speaker in this poem can only catch a glimpse of the “Truthful Mirror” of God (Paradiso 24.106), and knows that he, in turn, can only ever be a “dark reflective surface” of the screen, a “bead of ink, / an open pupil”—faulty mirrors all. The actual feebleness of our mighty communication systems have forced everyone to shout down into the abyss, to strain to be heard, to connect (although, what else is praying other than joining others with “heads bowed, ears wired, / mouthing messages to the no one there”?). Elsewhere, however, the Internet is “no heaven, / no hell, no ethos.” The modern world cannot even access the landscapes that have sustained humanity for centuries. Having become an orphan “Somewhere in the middle of my life,” the speaker does not even have a Virgil to guide him.

In the last poem in the book, however, the speaker catches sight of redemption, of the potential for healing that has evaded him throughout:

Long ago I died, and when I woke, deep
in the woods, dawn rose, and a white noise
in the radio clock with no clear station.

Hidden here is the “White Rose” that Dante witnesses emanating from God, the reward for his “mak[ing] still finer mirrors of my eyes” (Paradiso 30.85). God speaks in the in-between stations of divine frequencies, and only those who have journeyed through Hell—and who have made art—can hear them. In an image that recalls the first section of the book, the pain that the speaker endured allows him to “tune[] / to one clear song,” to access a new kind of listening that is not pain. Like Dante, the speaker recognizes himself in a facet of the divine—a stage of healing that reduces the scar to something “distant” and “pale.” Finally, the speaker can answer the “voice somewhere” that asks, “Can you hear me” not with speech, but with listening. At this frequency, the scar becomes the reminder of an encounter with God rather than with earthly trauma. Any reader of this collection must, like the Dante-esque speaker, steel themselves for the descent into pain and the journey toward transcendence.

About the Reviewer

Rachel Abramowitz's poems and reviews have appeared in The Threepenny Review, American Poetry Review, Tin House Online, Seneca Review, The Kenyon Review Online, jubilat, Crazyhorse, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Oxford, and has taught English Literature at Barnard College in New York.