Published by Valley Press
Don’t judge a book by its cover, so sayeth the saying. But in the case of Caroline Hardaker’s Bone Ovation I think it’s an appropriate judgement. This engaging and (for lack of a better word) creepy collection, with its macabre cover (an insect, I think a bee or wasp, half-stripped of its hair and flesh to reveal a part-skeleton, akin to a dissection) is a surreal dive into the darker end of human psyches, and our skeletal binds to this mortal coil.
This pamphlet is full of mesmeric poems which force their music into your skull, and then break it apart. There are poems about love and mountains, clans, feet and rice, to name a few, but what particularly struck me was Hardaker’s unusual use of repetition. The poems often repeat images (bones, skin, breaking/destroying/reconfiguring, butter and bodies) and sounds to create an almost chant-like or invocation-like quality, a spell-binding. This is what lingered with me, and will be the focus of this review.
I’m a peculiar fellow and repetition has a profound affect on me. Let me expand on that to give you an idea of why Bone Ovation’s repetitions of sound and content led me to a sense of ‘madness’… Sometimes I dream of repetitions, in numbers or patterns, layouts, blueprints, sounds or phrases. When this happens, it makes me physically unwell (or, the repetitions are a form of delirium caused by an illness, I haven’t quite decided). Bone Ovation is a short collection (23 pages of poems) with frequent repetitions which, in me at least, stirred a feeling of instability, obsession and even tangible insanity. I don’t feel this was accidental or even simply a product of my own mind, though, as the constant references to mortality, bones, breaking and reassembling, link our bodies with our psyches, as well as the erosion and reconstruction of the world and our perceptions of reality.
This sense of sweeping instability is further enhanced by Hardaker’s use of strong rhymes, which establish and then destroy attempts to gains something reliable in terms of form and patterns. Nothing is certain, and Hardaker lures the reader into false predictions. The musicality of the language, whilst tying into the prayer-like / spell-like qualities of the pamphlet, eventually bait the reader into abandoning expectation, unsettling the ground they walk on. We are destabilised further through inconsistent and peculiar sentence structures, breaking down how we process thought on a linguistic, even grammatical, level.
There are many examples to be plucked from the collection. Here is one from “Your Bones and My Bones are Chicken Bones”:
The chicken is a chicken – splaying gnarled bones and plucking skull,
and no new squawks will help that lie be sown.
But our bones are the same, I grant you,
our bones are the same …
Here, the repetition of “chicken” and “bones” in such close proximity not only draws connection between them, but also seems to undermine the assertion that “The chicken is a chicken”. Is it, really? This seems patently obvious until it unravels to suggest that the chicken is, when reconsidered through bone, rather human. So, is the chicken really chicken, or is there a hint of human there? And if there’s human in chicken, is there not also chicken in human? The poem asserts that the claim “The chicken is a chicken” is a “lie” which cannot be true despite our attempts to linguistically (through “new squawks”) prove it otherwise. Language is therefore incapable, or perhaps (more kindly) a somewhat blunted tool, in challenging the realities of physical world. We might squawk “a chicken is a chicken”, but that doesn’t make it true in every sense.
However, the poems build to a more multifaceted set of queries: our perceptions of ourselves, and other creatures (or indeed the nature of reality) unravel through the poems’ repetitions, which is reassembled and re-explored in various poems through the collection. Rather than drawing similarity from rhyme and repetition, Hardaker’s poems force us into reassessing those motifs to examine them for difference.
I realise I’ve taken quite a personal and philosophic/linguistic approach to this collection (rather than looking at themes and specific poems, and saying how much people might enjoy the collection) but it invites that kind of reading. There’s so much to admire in these poems, not only as particles but as a whole body. This is simultaneously a delusion and a carefully crafted artwork which forces the reader into new perceptions, a feat which is not only skilfully handled in such a short space, but engagingly so.
Bone Ovation is a unique collection of poetry which disturbed me into thinking differently about bodies, history, perception and psyches. It does so with a great orchestral style which invites rereading and reassessment. Go check it out!