Pieces of Us Scattered on the Coffee Table: A Review of Gathered Bones are Known to Wander

In Amy Strauss Friedman’s Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016), the theme of transience plays like musical notes across an orchestral score whether the movement surrounds space, the body, or mental journeys that take us across psychic, neural pathways.

As noted in the first poem “God Marks His Agendas ‘Draft,’” nothing is set in stone, especially one’s plans or identity. The speaker receives a draft of their next day’s “agenda,” and there are many revisions edited to the draft before midnight. The speaker just has to follow directions the best they can:

…On rare occasions an update appears mid-morning, and when it does it always includes something I was supposed to do earlier but hadn’t…spelled out in bold block letters…I ask to see my neighbor’s agendas, and they are always identical to mine.

God emails agendas in the above poem and in a later poem “The Evils of Surveillance,” God’s secretary leaves a voicemail that God is watching the speaker from 3 to 4 pm every day, and last week, “He was dispirited by what He’d witnessed.” So not only is there no freedom to deviate from routine with the agendas, but Friedman is commenting on that perhaps we are always being judged by what meager choices we have the power to make. Judged not only by our peers and society, but the universe and a higher power. No one is immune.

These poems also reveal playing with the ideas of manifest destiny vs. choice: every plan is a written detail to follow to the exact note, but how can one person’s plan be the exact same as someone else’s?  We feel this illusion of power over our lives in Friedman’s chaotic yet playful prose poems. We might have some power – but probably not.

There is a thorough and all-consuming sense of place (literal place such as an “unnamed desert” or a “cave,” but also the home which is supposed to be safe and “known.” The home is the location of many disconcerting and alienating feelings in this collection.) A partner might or might not have a fake identity, there is a plane crash in the front yard that only one partner can see even though the other walks into the home with caked blood on their shoes, one partner sells tickets to their home: it is now a museum where one of the main attractions is a broken door or seeing where objects were thrown in fits of rage.

We should feel familiar in these spaces, and yet there is a sense of comfort but also of isolation and loss of connection. Instead of feeling at peace at seeing one’s partner in the sunny backyard after a storm in “Faded Blues,” it is anxiety producing:

After the storm I find you climbing the rainbow just outside our back fence, sporting angel wings and edging along the faded layer of blue…You make it to the top of the arch with confidence and let go…

Almost like witnessing a child do something dangerous for the first time – knowing it is an important step in development and confidence but terrifying all the same and things don’t always end well. There is injury. There could be death.

The sense of transience in the body feels like fog in Friedman’s words: we can label fog: “fog” but it still feels magical and scary in certain circumstances, and we cannot control it. In the poem “Mirror,” the speaker looks at their reflection, should know it, but does not, cannot control it. Their reflection is a strong sense of the “stranger.  This stranger might even betray us. We forget the speaker is even looking into the mirror. The accusations and feeling of being watched by a stranger is what prevails in this poem. The reflection is not the speaker but a different entity entirely, a changing face in a crowd.

Throughout Friedman’s wonderfully surreal collection, however, is the effort to connect.  The poems peel back layers of intimacy in specific and haunting ways, prompting one to re-read upon completion, almost like the reader is hunting for clues that lead to different treasures each time around.

In “Miles from Home,” Friedman describes a picture of presumably a loved one on a billboard and the picture changes each night; it’s never the same photo twice. Each morning the photo shows the person in a different stance, a new setting:

One time you are playing tennis, smiling wryly, the name of the drug company you’re shilling for obscured by your racket…Yesterday I climbed the platform to find you holding out a key, reaching for the door to a house that isn’t ours. I pulled out a Sharpie and scrawled our address along the stone entrance, hoping you’ll find your way back.

Friedman’s speaker is forced to communicate through note writing on a public poster. Who knows if the note will be read? We see these posters every day, in advertisements during commutes, on television, in magazines. Friedman takes a common daily object and creates alienation by inserting an unreachable human inside, a missing person. We cannot reach this person no matter how hard we try.

We identify with this hunger to feel, despite walls, electronic barriers, and too much news clogging the ether. Friedman’s poems lift the curtain to reveal a loneliness in each of us that crawls under the skin, waits to be acknowledged, not wanting to wander.

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections (forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press). Her chapbook Clown Machine recently came out from Grey Book Press. Her chapbook Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or, The Wrong Items is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, Sea Foam Magazine, and decomP. She also has poetry reviews published in The Infoxicated Corner, The Rumpus, Horseless Review, and Ploughshares blog.

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