I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
(Terrance Hayes, ‘American Sonnets For My Past And Future Assassin’)
Strong poems can lodge in the mind for various reasons. It might be their sound patterning, or a vital image, or perhaps an especially resonant phrase. When I read naming bones, however, it was the poet’s novelistic twists which caught my attention.
As well as a poet, Joanna Ingham is also a writer of fiction. During my reading of this pamphlet, it sometimes felt as if certain poems operated like micro murder mysteries, with each crucial clue staggered so as to keep my curiosity sharp.
In ‘The Corpse Road’, for example, the poet begins with a statement: ‘Six men take the corpse to St Oswald’s.’ This straightforwardness is quickly undercut by the subsequent lines:
The seventh, stiff, waits on a coffin stone
as they eat their lunch, watch the sleet blossom.
It is now clear that the ‘seventh’ man is the corpse alluded to in the title. What makes the description powerful is the quotidian ‘lunch’ the men eat as the corpse ‘waits’. That active verb ‘waits’ introduces a delicious irony, while the ‘sleet blossom’ adds a note of poignancy: death, the poet reminds us, is an everyday fact, and one which won’t pause the seasons despite our human feelings of grief.
In terms of form, ‘The Corpse Road’ is a sonnet, which is often traditionally described as a ‘little room’. It is particularly apt in this context as it parallels the little room of the seventh man’s coffin. Intriguingly, the poet has chosen to divide the sonnet spatially into two parts: octave (the first eight lines) and sestet (the last six lines). The effect of this is to twist the perspective, to stagger the information and dramatic pacing.
In the sestet, we discover that the corpse is the father of one of the six men. By withholding this information until the last phase, the poet gives her poem more emotional punch. What at first seemed like an impersonal description of the journey of a dead man carried by the living is more connected — a network of associations, including familial ones.
Other poems in naming bones work similarly. ‘The Corpse Road’ and ‘The Paedophile’ stood out for me in particular.