Meeting Bone Man by Joseph Ross Review

Meeting Bone Man

By Joseph Ross

Main Street Rag Publishing 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59948-355-9

Pages: 90

Reviewed by: Cort Bledsoe

Joseph Ross has been a staple of the DC literary community for some time as a teacher, activist, and an amazing poet. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Joseph read several times, and he’s always a profound experience. I’ve had the opportunity to read with him more than once, and frankly, I’ve been nervous about it because I respect his work so much. Joseph Ross is a very rare kind of poet, compared to most (including myself). He rarely writes poems exploring his own experiences; his attentions are turned outwards on social issues, on ignored segments of the population, on the abused and mistreated. But Ross doesn’t lecture or seek to rub the audience’s noses in perceived wrongs; he’s simply exposing things that need to be exposed. He writes poems that matter. With more and more of the audience turning away from the self-absorption of current poetry trends, Joseph Ross is a breath of fresh air.

Ross’ debut collection is one I’ve been waiting for a long time. His writing is beautiful and brave. He opens each section of the book with portrait of the ‘Bone Man’ character, an anthropomorphic incarnation of death: “In the end,/ we all lie down in pieces,/in dry and tilting disarray” he concludes. Ross moves to the Darfur poems, a series of portraits of people and objects in Darfur, each imbued with meaning. “Darfur 1: The Boy” describes wrapping a boy’s corpse:

My hands move as slowly
as they have ever moved.

I carefully wrap
the stiff, brown body

of this child,
in a bright orange and blue cloth.

A boy, seven years old,
very old, for here.

Elbows, like crickets’ legs
teeth, luminous white.

The canvas walls of the tent
gasp for air

as the colored cloth
covers his face.

Ross’s imagery is stunning, not just for the power of the subject, but his description: the ‘elbows, like crickets’ legs’, the teeth, ‘luminous white’. Ross is silent in the presence of the body; he doesn’t rant or rail or try to make the reader feel one way or the other. It’s an impressive display of restraint, and further evidence of his talent. Anyone can write a sad poem about a dead child, but Joseph Ross has written a beautiful one.

Another series in the book is the Cool Disco Dan poems. Cool Disco Dan is a graffiti artist in the DC area. Ross uses this topic to not only shed light on an interesting subculture, but with Cool Disco Dan’s subject matter – frequently on social issues – Ross does double duty and further exposes the injustices faced in the African American inner-city culture. “Because spray paint smells/like anger, his name growls/from walls along the train track,” Ross begins.

Ross excels in finding beauty and significance in overlooked places, whether it be graffiti that many would consider vandalism, or in “The Universal Artificial Limb Company” which might be considered a grotesque subject with certainly a tacky building, but which also produces hope and opportunity in tangible form.

In the second section, “Bone Man Loves Parties,” Ross deals with more personal issues: memories of his mother. In “Grieving,” a beautiful contemplation on loss, Ross begins:

Thinking of her
is kind

of a search, a voyage
of looking

for signs and moments,
shadows and gasps

of her.

In these brief lines, Ross captures loss beautifully. His word choice is perfect. I especially like “gasps//of her”; aren’t memories of someone we’ve lost gasp-enducing?

The third section is “Bone Man Goes to the Beach.” In these poems, Ross deals with groups marginalized and victimized by American culture: African American and homosexual victims of violence and oppression. In “Bone Man is Not My Friend,” Ross deals with his father’s illness, among other things.

But don’t think that these are depression poems beating us over the head with that ever-present guilt-inducer “We need to do more!” As Ross says in “When the Dead Stand Up to Sing”:

Their song is not
of blood and breath.

It cannot just stop
like those things.

Their song is of victory.
Their song is of overcoming,

It is not the music of ashes,
clinging to us all.

It is the music of light
breaking through every crack

in every stone.

And Ross does his damnedest to share that light with us.

Joseph Ross is the finest poet I’ve read who wasn’t long dead with several college buildings named after him. There are a lot of people out there publishing writing they’re calling poems, and I might be one of them, but Joseph Ross is a Poet. Let’s hope his work gets the recognition it deserves. Suffice to say, I can’t wait for his next collection.

Joseph Ross is part of the vibrant literary community in the Washington, D.C. area. His poems appear in many anthologies including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Come Together: Imagine Peace, Full Moon on K Street, and Poetic Voices 1 and 2. His work also appears in a variety of journals including Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Drumvoices Revue, and Sojourners. He has read at the Library of Congress and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. An early member of D.C. Poets Against the War, he co-edited Cut Loose The Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib. He founded and directed the Writing Center at Archbishop Carroll High School and now teaches in the English Department at Gonzaga College High School.