Interview with Orlando White by Melissa Buckheit in this issue.
New work by Orlando White in this issue.
Bone and Letter, Image and Thought: A Review of Orlando Whites Bone Light
By Melissa Buckheit
White, Orlando. Bone Light. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2009.
Bone Light opens into the array of human history and existence, from the earliest human acquisition of language and communal ritual, to any moment in time thereafter, a white expanse like an unmarked map or a vast plain, shorn of grass and bare, in winter. We are not placed in any one moment in time, nor any particular physical geography, but rather in the space of transformation of thought or imagination, the space of the mind alongside culture as it creates language, meaning, signs, alphabets and characters—from narrative, the quotidian and the liminal. Within this space, the subject of the written word, and its innate relationship to the human form, emerge. The foundation of Bone Light is therefore built upon the idea that the letter and the word are more than shape, form or sound; they create meaning when put together into words and sentences, but also begin from individual meanings and narratives, in their ideograms. Yet, the letter is always an object too, in its shape on the page. The under-world of language therefore reveals our stories, associations, and collective narratives, from the past through the present and future.
It is into this glittered and littered field that Orlando White creates poems, as they emerge like bone through flesh into the light or like a letter cutting the page with ink, at scattered points in the field. It is ironic that the letter begins with narrative and accumulates narratives, hidden or visible, silent or voiced, at peace or seeking redemption. At the heart of Whites source and impetus for this book, seems to be the link between language as the organized, revered, and controlled high written word, and languages most natural origin in the quotidian and the oral. I cannot help but feel that identity is not without relationship—so many of Whites poems seem to contain the resurrection or display of the remnants of death— echoing the story of an occupation and/or erasure of a people among many peoples, a sadly common narrative since the beginning of human history. Within this history, the silencing and distortion of language, among other distortions, seem intrinsic for White, a Native American poet, specifically Diné (Navajo). In Bone Light, poems are never a requiem or the simple act of witness or retelling only; they are alive, like a skull brought back to life through imagination and breath. They are woman or man, the parts of the human body or letters moving across the flesh of the page, in action or commanded to action by the poet. This is a very singular instinct and inclination—one that knows that language was alive all along, awash in shades, but perhaps hidden to preserve culture, identity, the language itself. Here, the underbelly of the language emerges, stark, carry stories of beginning and stories of surviving, alongside one another.
Just as bodies move across space or letters may occupy the page, most of Whites poems are spare—words, short phrases or images dropped onto the page, like human speech is created in discernable yet unremarked daily patterns. The book lends itself to being read aloud by the poet (ideally) or the reader, in any space—a city park or a room with the door closed. Having heard White read, the intentionality of his inflection and rest returns language to its most natural space, gracefully and with ease. Yet, his poems are not easy, for all their spareness, nor for their varied repetition; these limits remind me of algebraic equations—mathematical or even philosophical— particularly a preoccupation with the zero. So veiled or impenetrable at times are some poems (qualities which I prefer and which occupy my own work), that I feel I can hardly say anything about them, nor would I naturally seek to analyze them. I can say that the mind of the poet is foremost in this book, seeking to engage the reader, and unlike many books of poetry today, Bone Light does not close but opens in its practice. It creates and continues, like a circle, without saying what any one thing is absolutely—any narrative, person, or emotion— or assigning it positive or negative status. There is neither answer nor any desire for an answer—there is an emptiness which is a natural milieu and reality. The book, as an object or reading experience is not boring, and it is not marked by the public personality of the poet and his or her take on various daily moments. Instead, Bone Light is a cool and warm and vivid act of imagination, a most authentic movement of poetry, one which listens to the many voices echoing in the din of human experience, which is an almost reflection (but not exact) of ourselves, our shapes and forms, stripped down to our most elemental bones and phonemes, as
Below the skull there is a part of a letter
shaped like a bone. But the skull is not a skull;
it is a black dot with white teeth. And the piece
of the letter under it is not really a bone,
rather a dark spine. This is not the end of language ...
The way a word tries to breathe inside
a closed book; the way a letter shivers when
a page is turned . Because underneath sound
there is thought. Language, a complete structure
within the white coffin of paper.
~ excerpt from Atsíístin, by Orlando White