A Clock of Human Bones
Yellow Chair Press
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones
Until recently, war has been a man’s game, inspiring poetry since Homer’s Iliad documented the 10-year Trojan War in Ancient Greece (about 1,200 years B.C.). Homer’s epic poem told the story of battles between King Agamemnon and the warrior, Achilles, fighting in and around the city, Troy, a site located in what is now Turkey. In the West, poems about war are particularly common among British (e.g., Alfred Lord Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, W.H. Auden) and American (e.g., William Meredith, Robert Lowell, Muriel Ruckeyser) writers who often idealized their country’s and their countrymen’s roles in battle. In his poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” American, Randall Jarrell, wrote, “This is how it’s done:/this is war./…Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can:/I find no fault in this just man./” The Viet Nam war seemed to change America’s perception of “war” and “warrior,” as expressed by Yusef Komyankaa in his poem, “Tu Do Street,” “We fought/the brothers of these women/we now run to hold in our arms./” Soldiers and war are humanized, their foibles exposed, including, the pain that they experience and cause others.
Matthew Borczon’s book, A Clock of Human Bones, won Yellow Chair Review‘s 2015 inaugural Chapbook Competition judged by poet, Kai Coggin. Borczon presents a raw, compelling, record of his experiences in 2010 as a Navy medic in Afghanistan, as well as, the personal aftermaths of his deployment. Coggin stated that she chose the book because, “His work stood apart from the pack, I just knew…this is the one. This book will stay with me for a long time.” Borczon’s poems do not disappoint the reader. They are, at once, personal narrative written in experimental style and expressions of psychological realism offered, for the most part, without overbearing sentiment and emotion. As a revelatory token to the reader, Borczon shares that he suffers the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, e.g., the poem, “Dreamed Too Often,” pg 18), an illness described with candor and without self-pity.
The form of these poems is minimalist, almost a series of fragments woven by each poem’s dominant theme. Borczon usually eliminates the conventions of punctuation, capitalization, and lineal conventions, producing a conversational tone and feel to the pieces (“this war/scrubbed clean/with bleach/and lye soap/sterilized daily/this aint no/killing floor/the klling/happens/beyond the/flight line/of the/helicopters/here/is just/where they/come to/die./” (“No Killing Floor,” pg 2). Clearly, writing the book served as catharsis for the author, whose economy of style and thought compresses the process of trauma over time and space. Borczon allows himself to be vulnerable to his reader, exposing his fear and loss, as well as, his own detachment and his comrades’ cruelty. The linguistic and emotional compression of the poems in A Clock of Human Bones reflects the need to truncate responses under stressful conditions that do not permit the luxury of extended reflection. Thus, writing about a dead child, “/all/I remember/is the/exact color/of the/towel/I wrapped/its body/in./” (“Hazel,” pg 4—note the depersonalized, “its” instead of “his” or “her”). Borczon’s poems masterfully integrate form, function, and substance.
Even though the themes in this book are personal, particular, and, often, foreign, the reader can identify with many of them because they express experiences common to all of us. In “Night Terror 1” (pg 16), for example, the poet recounts, “/I have/not found/your body/parts yet/but I/will keep/looking/for them/year after/year in/my dreams/,” highlighting memories of loss and reconciliation, human universals. Borczon tells us that, during his time in Afghanistan, dreaming was “repressed,” perhaps explaining the explosion of night terrors once he returned home (“What Do I Want,” pg. 28).
Except for the poem, “Foliage,” on pg 5 (“We once/walked across/the whole/base just/to see/some live/grass./”), the intense nature of the pieces under review is not relieved by joy or hope or color (except the color, red—of blood). One wishes to be informed that Borczon is healing, that he no longer has night terrors, that his darkness is now light. The poet, Michael C. Peterson, has described his own writing process as one in which he takes his writing to the point where it almost breaks. Many of the poems in A Clock of Human Bones “break” under the weight of their author’s continuing sadness, a characteristic that often gave me a jarring feeling. On the other hand, by the last poem, Borczon suggests that he is charting a course ahead, that living is more than an act of soldierly duty. One looks forward to reading more of his exquisite poems when Borczon is further away from the edge (/I want/the ghosts/of the/dead soldiers/to carry/the ghosts/of the/wounded/far enough/away so/I can’t hear/their scream/” (“What Do I Want,” pg 28). In the meantime, Borczon will attract a large and deserved following. I, like Coggin, will remember these poems “for a long time.”
Clara B. Jones is a retired scientist, currently practicing poetry in Asheville, NC. As a woman of color, Clara writes about the “performance” of identity and power and conducts research on experimental poetry. Her poems, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous venues.