A review of Isabella J. Mansfield’s The Hollows of Bone - Kat Giordano for Clash Media

 

Truthfully, I’ve always found my literary tastes kind of hard to pin down. I am writing this with full awareness that this not only makes me an extremely picky reader, but also perhaps a shitty reviewer. But it’s the truth. I’m not impressed by many of the things that I read. But if there are two things that consistently interest me in poetry, they are vulnerability and tension. Isabella J. Mansfield’s debut full-length poetry collection The Hollows of Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2019) contains both in droves.

Mansfield’s poetry does revolve around a set of relatively commonplace themes – motherhood, objectification, body image issues, and burnout, to name a few. But the vulnerability with which she handles these topics brings to light some interesting contradictions. How the demands of being a mothers and caregiver to others only amplifies her feelings of isolation, how we seem to need more from others the more we ourselves are needed. In poems like “She” and “#momlife,” Mansfield directly addresses not only the alienation that comes from giving so much of ourselves to others but also the ways in which the guilt of feeling this way further erodes our ability to ask for the things we want: “She feels alone and feels bad about that because she’s not alone. She is sorry for leaving you alone so she can be alone. She is aware of the contradiction. She is sorry about that too…” Nowhere is this theme of duality more prominent than in the poem “Crisis Point,” where Mansfield illustrates the pain and exhaustion that lies behind an outward façade of health and progress, such as in the closing lines “you will hear them rattle: / ‘She’s never looked better.’”

While I don’t have personal experience with many of the specific themes explored in this book, such as motherhood or the difficulty of caring for one’s aging parents, I see myself in Mansfield’s desperation. Reading this book, I reflected upon the many instances in which I gave endlessly of myself and then felt guilty for not being completely fulfilled in the process. Caring for others, while certainly not a useless pursuit by any means, allows us to externalize our own needs. We build identities around pleasing others, hoping to suffocate our own desire for compassion. Only it doesn’t work. We resurface, feeling even emptier than before, and then we berate ourselves for not being selfless enough to stop longing for the same effort from those around us. We don’t know how to fix this, so we bury ourselves once again in the problems and demands of others and try to forget what we wish they would do for us. But The Hollows of Bone doesn’t allow us to forget the price of a life lived entirely in the service of others, or the emptiness that so often lurks beneath an outward picture of fulfillment. By immersing us in that pain, Mansfield’s poems force us to confront the parts of ourselves that go undernourished and neglected in favor of others’ happiness. They hold a mic up to our repressed desires and encourage us to listen. The choice to obey is still ours, of course, but we can no longer ignore what awaits us if we don’t.

My favorite poems: “Breaking Point,” "Local Woman Accidentally Terrorizes Target Customers With Noisy Clearance Halloween Decor That Won't Turn Off," “To The Girl Giving Head In The Back of the Parking Lot”

You’ll like this book if: “Inspiration porn” makes you nauseous, you appreciate the beauty in others but apply different rules to yourself, you often stay up way too late talking a close friend off a ledge and then cry yourself to sleep.

REVIEW: THE HOLLOWS OF BONE, by ISABELLA MANSFIELD - Ron Graves for Brilliant Fire Publications

 

Poetry comes with an arduous responsibility: to reveal the truth. In her new book, The Hollows of Bone, Isabella Mansfield offers us truths about the hazards of human existence, both physical and psychological.

Despite her often deceptively light touch, Isabella does not spare the reader the pain of insight into her own struggles, or those in which we all share, and this can make for an uneasy read. She begins by telling us about apathy, which seems to promise the ease of “not feeling” but, instead, is a “vast gaping canyon.” Elsewhere, we encounter suicide (…And They Said Fresh Air Would Be Good For Me) and the cul de sac of ambivalence:

“She has one foot on the starting line, the other on a cliff. She waits for the gun to startle her in either direction. She is ready to run or jump. She doesn’t care which.” (From “She”.)

Ambivalence and apathy are accompanied by the grinding unpleasantness of the mundane, where even the sound of a paint roller is disgusting (Wide W Stokes); nature offers only the death and browning of blossoms (I Don’t Write Nature Poetry); and even the demands of our loved children can seem overwhelming (#momlife).

The one-time enfent terrible of psychiatry, RD Laing, remarked that whereas people often talk about “mere” subjectivity they never apply the same adjective to objectivity, and yet our entire lives are experienced subjectively. As Isabella says in her poem, My Naked Body, reflecting on her attempt to find beauty in the work of art that is her own nakedness, “But isn’t all art subjective?” Well, yes, it is, and elsewhere in this collection of poems she subjectively addresses issues like the relationship between parents and children; the decay of the flesh; crises of faith; the sometimes crushing demands of everyday existence; and the dreadful feeling of being alone and unheld.

So, is there no hope? Of course there is. Acknowledging the pain and suffering that is inherent to our existence (and the other kind that seems to be unnecessary and, therefore, an insult to our psychological and physical integrity) is not the same as surrendering to it, and Isabella Mansfield’s poems sing the song of a continuing struggle fuelled by courage and optimism.

Reading these poems may lead us to conclude that this is how life is: that it cannot be endured without the determination to prevail. In order to achieve that we need humour as well as bleak honesty, and Isabella gives us that in poems like the surreal, “Local Woman Accidentally Terrorises Target Customers with Noisy Clearance Halloween Decor That Won’t Turn Off.” The title alone is a delight.

This is a slim and rich collection of poems that will confront, challenge, and inspire the reader.