Unquiet Bones by Peter Midgley
Reviewed by Leslie Savath
Unquiet Bones. Wolsak & Wynn, 2015.
In his second poetry collection entitled Unquiet Bones, Peter Midgley masterfully unveils the universality of language. Interspersed in his poems primarily written in English are words and stanzas written in isiXhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa. For instance, the poem “kawusibonga! (praising myself)” contains several untranslated lines. Lines such as “NdinguGqumayo, ogquma okwamaz’olwandle” (6) can impede the accessibility of the message for readers who have not been exposed to isiXhosa before. This linguistic barrier might initially appear daunting, but it does not mean that the poem’s message is lost on the readers, as it still allows the transmission of Midgley’s ideas and thoughts to his Anglophone readership. Although he chooses not to translate certain phrases, Midgley provides insightful endnotes intended to guide the reader and spark an interest in learning isiXhosa. The explanations he offers on the expression “kawusibonga” bring clarity to the poem. The isiXhosa word means “to praise one’s self,” or, as he uses it, to introduce one’s self. This information allows the reader to gain a richer understanding of the phrase “I am” that is fleshed out throughout the collection.
Midgley’s poems create an intrinsic link between language and self. The complexity of the speaker’s identity is exposed in the poetry’s metaphoric use of bones. In the opening poem “bone,” the speaker outlines the fundamental features of bones and applies them to language. He first asserts that “bone is but skin stripped bare” (1). Hidden beneath one’s skin, bones constitute the deep structure of the body. He then equates his words to bones when he says, “words turned bone” (6). Through the use of the word “turned,” one might understand that not all words are bones, but that the speaker’s words are. They have been reduced to their absolute essence, deprived of any unneeded material. The relationship between words and bones is explicitly showcased in the line “teeth are but bones that speak … bone laid bare” (7, 9). Teeth are the only bones of the body that are constantly displayed – in other words, “laid bare” – to others. Relating the teeth to speech therefore means that the only access others have to one’s inner self is through uttered words.
In “kawusibonga! (praising myself),” the speaker identifies as numerous people, from Gqumayo to Zulu. He is able to wear multiple different “skins” and embrace the identities that they reflect. These identities are ephemeral, but the bones are timeless. “Generation after generation” (9) and in spite of the multiple “skins,” time has not altered the essence of his self. The bones therefore become memories of the past, experience of the present, and anticipation of the future. The bones become a new language: words universally understood.
Midgley adds another layer to his exploration of the bone in the form of his poetry. Flipping through the pages, one can notice a pattern in the arrangement of the words. By sequencing longer and shorter lines in alternation, Midgley shapes the poems into the figure of a spine. The rhythmic disposition of longer lines mimics the regularity of vertebrae in the spine. The shorter lines, then, become representative of the discs. This implies that no word can be removed from the poetry collection. Each word participates in supporting the overall structure.
The poems in this collection interweave with one another in a way that ensures an engaging reading experience. Once the reader realizes the care with which Midgley chooses his words, as well as their reverberation on one’s overall understanding of the collection, he or she is bound to be left contemplating for some time. Tackling complex yet easily relatable themes, Midgley’s Unquiet Bones forces one to reconsider one’s own deep structures, that is, what remains when one’s self is stripped bare.
Leslie Savath is currently pursuing her PhD in English at Carleton University. Her research interests lie in the comparison of English Canadian Gothic and Horror fiction with their French Quebecois counterpart, a rather unusual project for someone who is easily frightened and has difficulty sitting through an entire horror film! When she is not reading or studying, Leslie enjoys a good walk in the rain or a warm glass of whiskey.