Review of Raking the Hollow Bones by Bryan Tso Jones, Fairweather Books, 2008, Winner of the 2007 Rhea & Seymour Gorsline Poetry Competition. Reviewed by Toni L. Wilkes, author of Stepping Through Moons, Finishing Line Press, 2009.
Bryan Tso Jones’ debut collection, Raking the Hollow Bones, is a reckoning with the past, in particular, the past of his Chinese ancestors who fled Mao’s Red China. The book opens with a monologue from the mythological figure, Zhang Xian, “protector of children, warden of dreams” who becomes the poet’s guide on his journey to recover the ghosts of his ancestors and, thereby, himself. In “Zhang Xian and the Boy with the Gold Key,” the poet enters a door “we shut in our youth” and is instructed to “Gather the threads left by ghost whispers / into this silk embroidery.” What emerges is a silken tapestry of family stories, legends and myths as the poet claims himself by claiming his past.
In the title poem, the act of raking leaves links poet and grandfather: “Raking leaves, I bend like curved wood in a bow, / like my grandfather bent to plant rice.” What unfolds as the speaker “pour(s) over stories whispered by relatives” is a re-imagining of his grandfather’s past in a time “before peasants marched under red banners.” But Bryan Tso Jones brings honest reflection to bear on his task, acknowledging that any re-imagining or retrieval of a distant past is a struggle and, on some level, futile: “Difficult for him to imagine his footprints // washed in the monsoon would make / a grandson’s attempt to return more difficult.”
In “Sichuan Pork,” the poet prepares a meal “in this way taught to me” and suddenly, the chopping of garlic and the mashing of ginger evokes a grandmother hastily gathering possessions in her kitchen to flee “because Mao was coming.”
Food and the preparation of meals becomes a recurring motif throughout the book. A powerful and appropriate motif. The sense of smell harbors memory and so cooking becomes a mechanism to revisit a grandmother who “was pungent in the baskets arrayed with five-spice.” Ritualistic, cooking evokes familial tradition and therefore, a link to the past such as occurs in the poem “Study Cooking,” where the poet’s mother and grandmother demonstrate “how tender vegetables become when sliced against the grain.” At the end of the poem, the speaker “…listened as their mouths named things / gathered by the tongues of generations.”
Mouths, tongues, names, voices become further recurring motifs—family and history born and reborn through language: the naming of things and people, the delivery of stories and rituals such as the Buddhist funeral of a grandmother and the annual cleansing of the ancestor’s graves. Because, as the poet claims in “The Fading, A Talk-Story by Zhang Xian”: “When Memory forgot, only ghosts mourned.”
The generosity of Raking the Hollow Bones extends beyond concerns over relatives to include legends, myths and stories ranging from Odin to the Ganges Ma to a December rite still upheld in Germany and Austria where young, single men clad themselves in masks and animal skins and large cowbells “to bring luck to the good and punish the idle.” The best of these renderings share tales and stories less familiar: an ancient Chinese empress deceiving conspirators, Japanese WWII scientists engaged in human experiments in China for biological warfare.
Along the way, Bryan Tso Jones’ poetry demonstrates a measured control, a sure confidence and startling, original imagery: “the curves of traffic light bell peppers,” a poet’s fingers which “grew intimate with the belly of garlic,” a dead grandmother’s fingers “cold like the lungs of a cave.”
Over the course of the book, the poet accepts the place made for him in the family and claims what’s past. Early on in “Stone Chop,” the poet’s grandmother “…declared I should have a new name / to bear witness to ancestral ghosts who dwell across the sea.”
And so a carver chisels a stone chop, a personal seal, and the poet is “born again under his hands.” Later, the poet reconciles English with the Chinese of his grandparents. In “Romanization,” the poet presents the struggle to access the past through the spelling of Chinese words with letters in the Roman alphabet: “…Whisked like eggs, dofu, / luxurious food packed in a vacuum, / to the unaware ear curdles into tofu.”
There’s a humorous, self-deprecating and poignant moment in “Chinese School at Grace Cathedral” when “I called my teacher 'mouse' instead of 'teacher.' // The inflection wrong, it perched in my mouth / like an acrobat before the fatal slip.”
Finally, triumphantly, the poet achieves an integration of Chinese words and their etymology in “The Kitchen God’s Lament”: “In my thirtieth year, I wash spinach leaves in a colander, / but the Chinese for what I do falls in the shui / that drops, rain into the sink.”
Deftly, the poet’s journey concludes toward the end of the book in “Looking at the Bamboo in My House” where the past—family, heredity, culture—become engrained in the speaker’s daily life: the bamboo in the house, like the poem, a palpable object to harbor memory, ritual and identity—recovered, released and migrating toward a next generation:
When I was young I stuffed your cousin’s
thick joints with birthday and New Year’s coins…
When I smashed him open against the broken concrete,
smiles burst down the street, a flock of geese.