–This post is written by Bob Bradshaw.
Sometimes a poem relies on the reader’s knowledge of the poet’s local region or even of her life. Sometimes a poem relies on a wider knowledge, of a specific literary tradition or religion.
Sometimes this can’t be helped. In general, however, I think this kind of specialized knowledge should only be there to enhance a poem. It shouldn’t be crucial to its understanding.
There are, of course, exceptions. Sylvia Plath’s poetry is an example. How much would I enjoy her poetry without some knowledge of her life? Would it be like watching a fencer practice alone? The fencer’s ‘fight’ wouldn’t engage me emotionally.
In “Bones” I don’t need to know either the poet’s life story or the religious tradition that she comes from. Clearly there is a religious background to this poem. And the Ganges is known as the holiest of rivers. But beyond knowing that, do I need specialized knowledge to enjoy this poem?
We have all probably seen documentaries of India where bodies are burned in religious ceremonies along the Ganges’ banks. That is all that I, for the moment, need to know.
How could this stanza fail to capture my attention?
The smallest bones I collected,
still warm and sticky
from your smoldering pyre.
I’m taken aback by the stanza’s last line, ‘Mother’. It places me in another place, physically and emotionally. The lines are simple straightforward, as if this isn’t something shocking but simply part of a world that I’m unfamiliar with.
But a mother reduced to ‘warm and sticky’ bones is disorienting, at least for me, temporarily. The shock, however, is offset by the speaker’s calm tone. It reassures me. The poet tells us that her mother’s charred bones symbolized
those small pieces of your life
that you had never intended
anyone to see.
I take these lines at face value. I assume I’m overhearing the speaker talk to her mother, and that there would be no reason to question what she is saying, especially at such a time.
I made sure
the pot containing them sank
deep into the Ganges.
I watched the bubbles bob and spit
as the pot receded
Here the narrator is carrying out an obligation, as if she were a guardian of her mother’s wishes. It’s almost a pledge by the daughter not to reveal those ‘small pieces’ of her mother’s life that she ‘never intended anyone to see’. She sinks the pot ‘deep’ into the river. They also sink deep into the daughter, not to be lifted out.
Yes Mother, I did.
This was one task I did
The last stanza, ambivalent, is powerful. Here the speaker isn’t as forthcoming as she was in the previous stanzas. Here she only hints at the conflict that existed between them. This is the ‘one task’ at least that she has done for her mother ‘sincerely’.
The last task is a gift to her mother. The conflict and to some degree an attempt at reconciliation with a loved one at death is a common one, and one that I identify with.
No doubt readers can fill in background material, literary or cultural, that would enhance this poem. But the information won’t change the power that the piece carries.
“Bones” is a beautiful, and touching poem.
Also read Tammy’s brief commentary on the poem on the Cha blog.
Rumjhum Biswas [blog] has been published in India and abroad in both online and print journals and anthologies. She has won prizes in poetry contests in India and one of her poems was long listed for the Bridport Poetry Prize 2006, while “March” was commended in the Writelinks’ Spring Fever Competition, 2008. Also, her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Million Writers’ notable stories of 2007. Biswas was a participating poet in the 2008 Prakriti Foundation Poetry Festival in Chennai and a featured poet during the Poetry Slam organized jointly by the US Consul General, Chennai and The Prakriti Foundation in December 2009. She continues to write full time.