The Bones of Us produces the type of solace that only the gritty, dirty kind of poems can offer: the solace of not being alone in your own absurd fuck-ups and character flaws, the awe-striking relief found in reading the details of someone else’s life. Bradley is at his best here in the work that comfortably details basic reality:
When the deputy asks us if we
have questions, I raise my hand
and ask what would happen if
you aren’t there for the hearing.
The deputy reassures me that
since I was there, our marriage
would end no matter what; I
resist the urge to high-five him.
(Some Riot 29-36)
It’s Bradley’s honesty that carries the sentence, poem, and page: “Facebook makes for a cheap private detective. It tells me my wife has a ghost of a new girlfriend…” This is not your parent’s divorce, or maybe it’s pretty similar and you can relate, or maybe you’ve had your own divorce; it’s not exactly a taboo subject in our culture, but that doesn’t mean we’re all gunning for train-wreck marriages. Bradley takes the anger, disappointment, grief, guilt, et al., in the loss of his first marriage and writes it all up in short, to-the-point pieces. The wry wit in these poems is the type to inspire and to make you cringe for its painful honesty:
I was less than an amazing husband,
treating your body like the right side
of an isosceles triangle. We always laughed
when we told people we met
while I asked you to be on the left.
(No More Merlot 13-17)
It’s a good type of pain, the therapeutic kind. It’s so easy to empathize with the realist who isn’t shy that it’s downright cathartic. Bradley manages to convey a sense of presence; his voice is accessible, immediate, perhaps an endearing tone crafted throughout his spoken word career.
Editor and publisher KMA Sullivan likens the illustrated format of The Bones of Us to William Blake’s work, saying in the publishers note that “not since Blake has a full-length poetry collection been released first as an illustrated collection.” I would liken the format more to a comic book; it’s similar in size, double the length and looks like the graphic novel more familiar to us than the unprecedented printing methods Blake presented to his generation.
In this book, both poet and illustrator have an unrefined edge that is a definitive element to their individual styles. Here we have two separate but similarly heavy pens working in different mediums; the combination appears organic, the pictures and poems working together. Mazer tends to illustrate the metaphors of the book literally, producing the same type of concrete, definitive feeling as Bradley’s writing; the hand-drawn cover of a skeleton bride and groom in Polaroid frame lying next to a spilled bottle of wine captures the book much like the finger-train winding through mountain tunnel illustrating “The Orient Express.” On the other hand, some pieces like “Emphysema” are accompanied by a bird flying out of a trapdoor above a burning city:
I hope my sighs choke like canaries
so I can skin and stuff each one
and place them next to your fingernails.”
“Christened” depicts a man and woman embracing as they fall from an exploding airplane and there are astronauts and cowgirls and a bride with a severed head. Mazer’s simple black-and-whites, the literal translations and slightly fantastic, remain consistent through his tensely dark scrawl of ink.
There is little illustrated by Mazer or told by Bradley of what predicated this particular marriage. We read more on its end, the divorce and aftermath with a bit of entropy applied. Bradley writes of a hard but loved reality, but episodes of anger and regret still manage to convey a tenderness in spite of the simplistic script:
“For a moment, I ask myself “Is this like old times?” before remembering our whys behind our I don’ts”
(No More Merlot 4-7)
Bradley bears down on reality while offering his readers choice bits of the love/hate story. There is little in the pages of figuring things out, looking back with longing; there is no great need to grasp for understanding:
I’m not sorry for the six years,
the mistakes, the blackouts,
how the vowels of our bed
made the neighbors remember
our names. I’m sorry
we weren’t grown enough
to sheathe the blame.
(No More Merlot 18-24)
This graphic poetry book is a great example of the modern process: the combination of two artists who had never met, the use of a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource funding from artistic communities, and a happy ending. Meanwhile, the actual content of the book detail the cliched unhappy ending. J. Bradley’s background as a spoken word poet is evident in his plain-clothed metaphors and his focus on concrete reality rather than subjective emotional experience. The innovative format, combined with the author’s strength of honesty, lend the well-known theme new feeling.
Darby Laine is a poet and reviewer living in Burlington.