Excerpts > Fall 2003
Kevin Prufer, The Finger Bone, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP

Reviewed by Sarah Kennedy

Kevin Prufer. The Finger Bone. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2002.

In a time when contentions between “formalist” and “experimental” poetic camps often seem irreconcilable, Kevin Prufer’s work is a welcome indication that praxis often cuts through the tangled arguments of theory. The Finger Bone, his second collection of poems, plays among traditional forms and modes--the sonnet, blank verse, casual flirtations with the villanelle--but avoids the strait-jacket prosody that too often marks contemporary “formalism.” Laced with Prufer’s characteristic incantatory diction, the poems of this volume blend self-referential narrative with sensual lyric to play many variations on subjects as familiar as American masculinity, nature, and the frustrations of poetic language.

Part I begins with “Pastoral,” appropriately enough, since much of the book’s imagery in concerned with the intersections and collisions of the human and non-human worlds. This pastoral, like most poems in this mode, originates from an urban point of view but, unlike most pastorals, is not idyllic and does not conceal the town-dweller who speaks. Spring becomes the “season when wasps come back” and “the season of egg sacks from the traffic lights.” This pastoral still inhabits a world infused with the divine; “angels,” after all, are “on the power lines,” but these angels are “like crows or snarls when the sun comes up.”

Ontological boundaries slide, and the latent violence of this blurring is a menace within even the most benign conditions; the angels, like wasps, are “a tension of nervous wings” and rain “weep[s] us into spring.” Such blurring, however, also allows, in other poems, the discovery of beauty in the most quotidian details; the “brim of the boyfriend’s white cap” and the “caution light on the rain-/slick walk” become petals, the one element of love-conventions the speaker can recognize (“Petals”). Metaphoric distance, on the other hand, makes a “Sad Story” of our imagined connections to nature: “The waves are impersonal as math. If I could slide into them/ / I would not know what to say to myself.”

That conditional “if,” however, highlights the meta-poetic thread that keeps Prufer’s poetry from any danger of neo-Romanticism. This is a poet paradoxically in control of his self-conscious narratives; his own language comes under the mirror-gaze of his created speaker, who realizes, “My words always embarrass me/ / before the enormous” (“Sad Story”). The self-reflectiveness of Prufer’s language, in “Divorce,” becomes a terrifying recognition that the poem uncovers “a true story” where, although “the names have been changed,” the innocent who are “protected” by this concealment are, in fact, more vulnerable to “the nameless man in the yard” at the end than at the beginning. “ swaggering irony governs “Death Comes in the Form of a Pontiac Trans Am”; beginning with a long glance at Keats, “When I have fears that I may cease to be,/ I think of death” the poem launches into a meditation on death as that quintessentially American muscle-car, the Trans Am:

It will not purr—it spits its awful stutter,
then roars these words: I want, I will, I am.
It flattens snakes, knocks dogs into the gutter.
It speaks American. It speaks American.

Part social satire, part parody, “Death Comes in the Form” looks askance at its own hyperbole with the repeated last sentence. But what would the landscape of contemporary America— American poetry—be without its cars? Part II of The Finger Bone takes on and demolishes the common celebratory stance by displaying stolen, wrecked, junked, hail-covered cars, cars owned and cars seen on TV, one holding “the body . . ./ . . ./ hands roped at her waist,/ cheek to the floor, eyes rolled up or away,/ knifed in the back” (“Salvage Lot, Dusk”). It’s a cliché that Americans are their cars, but in Prufer’s work this platitude morphs to a frightening new recognition that cars have become part of the technological cyber-world that threatens to engulf the individual voice. “Sad Song” links the “black hearts of automobiles” with the “red eyes” of radio towers and the “unhappy music” that is “ticking” in a hard drive. The computer’s virtual reality in “Technophobic Sonnet” has redefined exterior materiality, and the speaker is trapped under the finger of “someone” who has “deleted the statues” in the park. It’s initially nightmarish, the speaker looking up for answers only to find “the sky had that glow/ of a computer’s blue screen, the clouds like icons/ that hovered too squarely.” But when, at the end, “whoever it was shut his system down,” the poem, surprisingly, almost self-mockingly, seems to have shrugged off its speaker’s apparent demise.

The first poem in Part III, “Technophobic Sonnet” introduces a sequence of poems about science and knowledge that manage, against all the odds set up by the poems themselves, to come to terms with uncertainty and dread. Astronomers figure largely in these poems: one discovers that “the dead are perhaps as a telescope/ aimed at what we at first presume/ / to be another receding star” (“Moth Knowledge”); another, in the sonnet “The Astronomer to His Telescope,” works against the stars’ own inclination to avoid us—”They are always thinking about the perfect exit.” And finally, it seems, though the stars are simply beyond us, “always changing/ their minds . . . shifty as thieves and arrogant” (“Stars Where They Aren’t”), they are held momentarily in the gaze of Prufer’s vividly human metaphors.

And the human world is, of course, where we always find ourselves. “The God of Clues” reminds us again and again that our “number’s up,” but we continue trying to grasp what we can. Like the archaeologist brother in “Neanderthal,” who uncovers one of the title’s finger bones, the speaker wants to make meaning of the discovery: “Pale comma in the ground, insuck of breath,/ pause, buried thought.” The bone is language, it’s syntax, a silent text needing to be deciphered. But this poem ends on a question, and the bone gives no more answers than the finger bone of “Ars Poetica,” found in a carton of ice cream. “What bird? What angel?” the speaker asks, recalling the old chain of being, that sliding scale on which the human soul was believed to travel up or down. In Prufer’s universe, however, we don’t really travel far; the dead stay among us to “finger our plants, more tangible than God” (“For the Dead”). The mysterious finger bone, in fact, may belong most properly with those dead, whom the speaker in “For the Dead: A Clearer Song” asks to “take over” the singing: “Won’t you, thin-fingered/ divinity, with all your grace and snow?”

No one answers the speaker’s pleas, but metaphoric investigation and interrogation are the most important linguistic gestures in this book. Not quite prayer, but close to it, the questions and repetitions of phrase in The Finger Bone make careful speaking and the deliberate crafting of a poem almost sacramental as they join art and science in a single act. “Trompe L’Oeil” begins, “The dead are as an echo resounding off a wall/ on which someone has painted the shapes of stars.” Can we ever know the dead, the divine, entirely? No, but the poem provides something else: a self, seen as one of “all the people clicking forward” in time. “I stood,” the speaker says, “head tilted,/ and looked into an unmoving sky. I whispered my name,/ and heard the echo come back to me.” This echo, neither the voice of the stars nor the truth of the dead, is the speaker’s own name, which, finally, may be what we’re all listening hardest to hear.

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