canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Some bones and a story
by Alice Major
Wolsak and Wynn, 2001

Reviewed by Craig Thompson

The question of historical reconstruction is delicate, as is the idea of re-creation. Because history offers such a vast palette of information, the voice and reason of the interpreter must be truly compelling for re-creation to be successful.

Some bones and a story is Alice Major's sixth book.  The transparent afterword details Major's process of re-creation, starting with her discovery in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints  that women saints "almost never reflect the Church-sanctioned role for a woman as wife and mother." This compelled Major to delve further into the lair of history, which, in the case of these particular saints, is often available only in  fragments or through the oral tradition.

Using a few of the more "shadowy" stories of women saints, Major has crafted a solid and occasionally powerful set of poems. Her claim in the afterward that "these monologues are not historical reconstruction" but "narratives from a woman of my time and place" states the obvious: she is recontextualizing these stories in today's terms, emphasizing the continuity of the woman's struggle over hundreds of years. Gender politics is not strictly her point, however: she revels in a construct that intersects medieval language, modern sarcasm and ennui to flesh out the modern tone. This allows the reflection of her saints to be seen, for instance, in Major's real-life grandmother, who is reminiscent of Dorothea of Montau.

She references the title in the first stanza of the collection: "Who was I then for a thousand years/Just some bones and a story?" This poem, about Saint Catherine, described in the prelude as "removed from the official calendar in 1969," acts as the foundation for this collection. We read about injustice, history, and the various disgraces handed Catherine. This piece is carried off fiercely, more defiant and emotive that a simple reconstruction of history.

Saint Marina, disguised as a monk, has a compelling story recreated in six parts. Here Major digs deep into her imagination, using mere shards of story and resource to spread Marina’s life across eight pages. This ends with "My bones. A white assortment./The curved, clubbed femur, the carpels/like ivory game-pieces, the round orbit/of eye-bone." When Major hits high notes, when she lets the details break through and her cunning imagination pierce into history to create these passages without explication, the material resonates.

But she is prone to over-explanation. For instance, "Possessed By Gravity" is full of narrative markers like "How did I come to scramble up here?", "How numb am I from holding on," the repetition of "come down," "come down," the various depictions of inflicted pain --one wonders why Major did not compress this piece, as is suggested by the following excerpt towards the end:

 When I die,
 the cross I burned
 on my soft breast
 will be revealed. I held the wire
 in the candle flame
 watched it turn red,
 rage red. Touched
 the wire to my skin.
 Angry tooth.
 Sharp suckling.
 The pain, the waves like waves that leave
 a swimmer gasping. Falling unconscious.
 The strange, charred, charnal smell.

Such vitality drives home the force of this saint's violent "episodes of possession" but is weakened by the rest of the piece.

Other fine pieces include "Wilgefortis", a tale of a bearded saint told in the modern context of domestic abuse, where words and phrases like "huh," "if you can't beat 'em," "everyone cooled off" and "plasticine" stretch the voice out. Thankfully, Major does not indulge in this trick of modernizing in other places.

"Saint Xene" is another success, imagining the story of a woman who leaves piety behind to discover "another god" and "take the name stranger." The piece "Blessed Louisa Albertoni, Widow" also succeeds in recreating the story of a widow who bakes all her wealth into loaves of bread for all the town, in the process of this charity becoming "light as a loaf of good bread swelling in the oven." The analogy with loaves and fish, though overarching and obvious, is accounted for and successful.

"Blessed Veronica and the Holy Trinity" rings well with humour. Describing the saint whose talent to the Church "was tears," Major allows humour ("a careless baptism," "the liquid was thicker than water, but clear and deep enough for the Christ-fish to swim in") to let this mythological tale breathe.

Major's tone and sentiment, generally, do not weigh heavily on the mind. There is delight throughout these pages. From the "shadowy" source material, Major was able to dig into an era of doubtless patriarchy and glean tales of female triumph and sacrifice. There is much of historical impact here, delivered in a charming, though sometime over-explicated way. Major set out from the confines of historical records and has created an absorbing read that succeeds in her goal: to provide new emotions and a revived spirit to "some bones and a story."

Craig Thompson is a Toronto-based writer and editor.







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