Review: Bone Music by Joel Peckham

Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2021.

Paperback, 90 pages, $18.00.


Bone Music


Joel Peckham’s latest collection of poetry, Bone Music, is his most daring yet, looking with utter honesty at the cartography of healing following substantial loss. Readers of his past work will recall that over a decade ago, the poet experienced a car accident overseas in which he lost his wife and eldest son. In Bone Music, Peckham continues his excavation of grief, sharing a full spectrum of emotions in which he maps the contours of love, joy, fear, sadness, loss, and abundance. These incantatory poems explore both sound and movement in their making of meaning, as readers become in many ways seated in a raft while wave after wave of ocean rocks and lulls and spins—just as any good music does.


Bone Music has a tight focus, concentrating on memory and healing, of rage and the numerous navigations en route to forgiveness, both of others and oneself. The collection has a strong theme of motion, with numerous poems that feature vehicles. In poems such as “Suffering Tape,” Peckham proves himself to be, once again, a god of sound and alliteration: “I could see myself spool out to blues and reds with golds of early evening sun and shadow as I shook and took the shape of starlings flocked or the flame of sunfish staring up at night from the windshield’s blue-black pond.” Here, readers are treated to a feast of momentum, a furious dance on the page.


Yet, this collection, is not intended as simply a quick read. It asks the reader to dwell in the poems, reading them again and again, steeping in the words as a cup of tea grows more potent over time—as memory also grows and fades and becomes in its potency, clearer and not in its being. The book contains two sections: the first, The Quantum Soul, seems to function as an exploration of the interior, of memory and soul-searching, our cosmic relationship to mortality and philosophy, and the second section, In Case of Emergency, as a deeper probe into the nature of life. The latter is an unabashed look at the poet’s own failings and guilt, how one seeks to repair damages, despite repeated trauma, with a will to better one’s self.


Bone Music opens with “Prologue,” in which the line breaks emphasize a kind of rhythm, where the ending line “and was lost” sets the stage for what is to come—a book about various kinds of loss. The five-part “The Wreckage That We Travel In” is particularly astounding, beginning with these lines: “The world must take us by surprise—in spite of all the warnings, all evidence. Even a man shaped by loss takes each new blow in bafflement.” The poem is the reader’s first glimpse of a fascinating form that Peckham echoes throughout the rest of the collection, wherein what seem like prose poems exhibit sudden line breaks in the middle of a sentence:


. . . a matter of perspective and a sheet of glass all that separates the one from the many, this life from the next—what could send us crashing, flying into it? As a boy hurtling


up 93 with my father to visit his father in the nursing home, I loved to stare directly at the trees until they blurred and I could feel that killing speed and imagine I was me and not me and me . . .


Here’s another example from “In Case of Emergency”:


. . . When everything is always at my earlobe breathing

and heavy and hot with lungs as full as any long distance runner’s, wild-

ness is just another kind of intimacy,


an intimacy of layering upon another and another: not one clock

but thousands—all ticking, all chiming . . .


The result of this style mimics a memory, somewhat corporeal, as one thought leads to another, at times without clear transition, yet always with a certain profoundness. Poetic form, even at times in a subversion of form, is exceptional in this collection, and Peckham caters to readers who might also be poets, giving overtures to craft in poems like “RE: Like a Box”: “And if a poem is not salvation it might just be its metaphor: it does what a metaphor does: sheds it skins and slides away….” As a result, many poems become a lesson in poetry writing without compromising the core messages of the collection. Bone Music aims to bring readers along, to help them in their own personal quests.


We glimpse Peckham’s searching in poems such as “Suffering Tape,” where Peckham proclaims: “I learned what breaking meant, how it was transformation; it was crackling; it was resonant.” Or in “Going Sideways,” where the lines  acknowledge and reach for greater meaning beyond self:


I do not travel backwards


easily. I circle back in widening arcs


to the same songs, the same pictures floating from between the

covers of the same books, the same unfinished arguments,


to the same desert highway under the same stars reflected on the

same dead sea.


Bone Music intends to take readers off the deep end, to dive into the waters of what living means when grief has followed a person for so long.


Perhaps the most encapsulating poem of the collection can be found in its ending. “The Locomotive of the Lord” is the poem the whole collection builds toward, in that it moves the reader from constellation into a singular picture: “This life is a beautiful / accident made of accidents we try to shape.” Bone Music closes with a precious message of gratitude for what one has, this precious life, including all that is not in the same way anymore but evermore precious in its existence.


In closing Bone Music in this way, Peckham offers a path forward. The acknowledgment of pain, even of continued pain, becomes oddly a comfort—and a source of healing through which one may fully grasp and find joy. Bone Music, as a result, becomes a guidebook for the grief-stricken. By reaching for the grayer edges of human experience, Peckham turns readers toward honesty instead of simple answers, which makes for a lasting poetry collection.