This review was written for The Contemporary Small Press.
Bone Ovation is the debut poetry pamphlet from Caroline Hardaker. It is a slim collection of 20 poems, published by Valley Press, that satisfy an interest in myth and folklore. Hardaker’s poetry is an example of mythology as a splitting open of the present, of stories and a deep-seated connection to the past. It considers an element common to all: “Composite of brittle chalk and precious like the stalks of daisies in chains.” Bone.
Hardaker positions humans in relation to non-human things, so much so that they are transfigured. This at first seems anthropomorphic, in that human attributes are applied to non-human entities. But, as we pick these poems apart, it transpires that the human is morphing into the non-human; becoming less human and more planetary. The pamphlet is varied and vicarious, each poem adding to the deep well of stories that constitute mythos.
Hardaker’s skill as a poet is apparent from the first pages. Blank space cleverly settles the reader into the collection:
W h i t e s p a c e
for eyes’ respite
She experiments with the page and shows no fear, using the blank page to create meaning as much as the signifying words. The result is abstract and expressive. Her style is distinctive in its use of assonance and alliteration in a play of patterns between phonetic sounds. ‘The Rains,’ for example, is a short poem (only nine lines in two stanzas) yet it glows.
Each raindrop contains a soul
I’m told, and sleet is nought
but the urgent need of the dead to meet
their loved ones in the mortal world.
The narrator recalls her grandmother habitually eating drops of rain: “She said it made her feel alive again.” Traces of the past fuse with the present, handed down orally from one generation to another. It is a celebration of kinship, etched in memory and the natural imagery of falling rain. The poetic voice tends to our mortality – a life cycle that repeats, repairs, restores – but also regards a transcendental and immortal consciousness, a spiritual being-in-the-world, in a simple ritual of remembering and returning.
‘The Weight of My Feet’ recounts the experience of having a/living in a/being a physiological body: “tired feet / tired fire-feet.” The aching body distracts the mind from itself, simultaneously returning the mind to itself as part of a body that aches. The poem is thick with imagery of flora and food to explore the restorative responses of the body to survive, seemingly of its own accord. The speaker’s feet “shed skins,” are “red plums to stand on,” an adolescent bulb “amongst nimbler water lilies.” Aching is expressed through the italicised refrain and interruption: “My tired tired fire feet,” where, in its excess of sensation, pain disrupts thought and, in the end, stops the poem altogether: “I have so much more to say.”
‘The Paper Woman’ depicts a mythical figure, told as hearsay between folk: “Who is she, sir?” The figure in question is a fragile woman whose body is metaphorical paper. She is slow and magnified:
once an hour dropping crepe lids
over ochre corneas, crusted dry
more to shut off the world than moisten the eyes.
She is rapt, tainted, even cursed, and alienated from the rest of the world. Her porous skin is stained with pigments of ink, “bold tattoos / like the Bayeux Tapestry,” a body that bears the consequences of history:
The event is etched on her skin
with a sharpened stave, leaving bitter rivets which
itch to a depth she can’t scratch.
Hardaker conjures a beautiful parable of “warm, soft cloth” on paper, water seeps into the fibres “to expose her raw insides.” Her exposure is potent, cleansing the skin, in order to relieve the inner itch.
Fragmented, but elegant and humorous, ‘Sticky White Rice’ demonstrates the humanness in Hardaker’s poetry through simple, ordinary, everyday observation. The subject of the poem is making sushi, a fiddly task, and the lines knock into each other as an effect of enjambment: “but / I want to crush it – / push it tight in my fist / humiliating it.” Juxtaposing Pictish painting with neatly setting the table, the poem is a short and sweet expression of our internal dissension.
In ‘The Woman is Like the Picasso,’ Hardaker explores art through aspects of cubism in short line stanzas, abundant in its painterly quality:
You’ll not know her, she looks to the side
a spectrum of illicit shades
hair all quantum in sharp directions
It is descriptive of Picasso’s many cubist portraits of women (Weeping Woman with Handerchief III, for example), a retelling of painting through writing to communicate a point of view: “See that fierce pride under bashful eyes? / Even Picasso couldn’t capture it. / He tried.” ‘The Woman is Like the Picasso’ speaks to ‘The Paper Woman,’ each exploring the blank, flat or delicate qualities of the page that art and writing attempt to release, like moments of time to be filled.
In many of these poems, personality is a physical attribute and the separate stories speak to each other in the cosmos of the collection, as in ‘Marriage & Black Holes’: “I’m the sucking goop between galaxies there, / spread thin like emollient blackcurrant jam.” The handle of myth is light-hearted and humble, using art and language as tools for reference and meaning. Bone Ovation is a small fable of poetic thought, shaping new imaginings of the modern world to add to an ancient history of mythic story-telling.