Book Review: WAKING THE BONES by Elizabeth Kirschner

waking_the_bones_400_2 Waking the Bones
by Elizabeth Kirschner
The Piscataqua Press, 2015

In her memoir Waking the Bones, Elizabeth Kirschner unravels the snarled strings of her life, weaving connections between her childhood traumas, her adult mental illness, and the redemptive power of self-reliance.

Kirschner divides her memoir into clear sections, each of which anchors the short, poetic chapters within to a specific span of years and to a particular location. Despite these confinements, the individual chapters are airy and dynamic, and Kirschner’s language is alight with sensory detail and a feeling of constant, fluttering movement.  Often, this movement is most apparent when Kirschner – called “Little Bits” as a child – escapes the dangers of her domestic life and seeks refuge in nature:

I, Little Bits, dost remain in the vast, blue woods of my childhood from scantest dawn to decanted twilight, rare as the cherry womb of a lady-slipper. Here I scramble onto downed trunks whose roots span the girth of Catherine wheels, trunks whose spongy insides are stuffed with what seems like crimson-brown catkins. I wonder: does the catkin fairy nest in that puffy stuff? Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink with sea-green inchworms?

Kirschner’s poetic prose plays with both speed and sound, starting with low, deep vowels sounds that anchor it (and Little Bits) to the ground – “downed trunks whose roots span the girth.” Then, the narration beings to lilt upwards, building to sharp consonants and tight, light vowels – “Does she dingle-dangle on twigs, or slinky-slink.” Though she is weighed down by immense childhood trauma, Little Bits is as bright and airy as her narration, darting and hovering between images like the monarch butterfly whose migrations she traces throughout the book. Kirschner never loses this childlike voice, nor the impression of speed and sensory distraction.  Elizabeth the woman maintains the sporadic wonder of Little Bits the child, attracted to beauty and ephemera, fantasy and poetry.

Even as the memoir moves forward in time – progressing from Little Bits’ chaotic childhood through Elizabeth’s marriage, the birth of her son, Ryan, and her eventual institutionalization and divorce – the story maintains its fluttering narrative style. Kirschner’s chapters continue to resist the temporal order that the section headings ascribe them, often beginning with phrases that destabilize an attempt at ordering the narrative at all:

“After a long death, I started to come back.”

“In time, over time and through time, I continue to cross three bridges and states to see Ryan.”

“Soon after, long after Dad goes to the other side, the seizures start.”

These gestures intentionally unravel time, drawing the reader’s attention to the way that all the moments that Kirschner describes – childhood, marriage, illness, divorce – inform and shape each other. It’s of no consequence if a moment occurs “soon after, long after” another moment in linear time, since all moments occur simultaneously in her memory.  Little Bits/ Kirschner are in constant motion alongside and against each other, colliding into one another and their memories as they try to make sense of their story.

Woven amongst these fragments is a complex question about love and blame. In spite of Kirschner’s painful childhood, suffered at the hands of abusive parents, she chooses not to challenge or condemn them for their transgressions against her. Kirschner knows that her bones are not her own – they belong (at least in part) to the family history that created her, the tangled knot of stories, relationships, and people that produced her damaged (and damaging) parents and her own wounded self.  Her bones are fragile, like the skeleton of a fallen bird that she and her son once found in their garden, and they’re flimsy, like the material of the skeleton costume that she wore while her father abused her as a child. However, fragile and flimsy bones are also her foundation, and they are the tools that she uses to rebuild her life after the unraveling of her marriage.

Kirschner often refers to her Sea Cabin—the home in coastal Main that she rebuilds after her divorce. She calls the process of rebuilding the house “waking the bones,” stressing that, in rehabilitating the house, she is also rehabilitating herself.  Kirschner doesn’t reject her damaged foundation –  her old and wounded bones. She merely accepts that she has been “Kirschnerized,” that her loss expands her, propels her, and is part of her heritage.

At the conclusion of her dynamic and emotive memoir, Kirschner leaves her readers with a sense of hard-won wholeness and peace. Kirschner continues to renovate her Sea Cabin, feeling, as she does so, her damaged mind and body begin to heal:

Because I go after it, through, under and over my healing, I braid it into the plaits of my being. By doing so, I learn that a mad mind can heal, but a mad soul – Mom, Dad’s – can’t. My mind is a lighthouse, greenhouse, moonhouse.  It’s a dream structure built upon a foundation of boulders caulked by starlight and mission figs. It’s not only built to last beyond my own lasting, but out of a fabric transient as tears, a hope that’s not easily undone.


Filed under: Book Review, Prose