“Michael McAloran sets inner demons to words. He is an artist of sense, a tamer of Muse.” — Nobius Black.
The Gathered Bones represents the latest collection of poetry by the prolific Michael McAloran.It opens with the following quote by Georges Bataille: “He who is damned bites at the sky…”
What does it mean to be damned, to McAloran, and in whose estimation? His sky is the “black vault”, unreachable, unmoving. The existing damned become the leaving damned- and in that process gesture to a vacuum of quiet, venting words from impotent jaws, emanating from hollow bodies housing damage. The damned, in The Gathered Bones, are those who vanish into oblivion in full witness of a seemingly indifferent universe.
A cadaverous waste
Spat at the sky.''
The density of a
He describes these states of vanishing, dying, being of the void or approaching it- by bringing us repeatedly back to the body, to the blood and skin and layers of tissue and things corporeal:
“Breath of wasted air”
“Wasted slashed flesh”
“The closed fists of My flesh”The flesh is where emotions manifest, at times the object of abuse and at times expressive. The flesh is the interface between living and oblivion, between energy housed and contained within the body and energy snuffed. McAloran has this way with word economy and density, his lines are quick strokes but in those few words he manages to convey a lot:
Breaking ajar the
''...The wastage of
Playing their silent
Dead airs...''Over and over, the body rots before the black nothing, or in the sun, the bones “whittled”, the body leaving and the self left decomposing in sight of the “sky vault”:
The gathered bones
Raw...''Does the body rejoin the blackness of origin? The bones move from their natural configurations to “gathered” and we can’t help but spend some time on this transition and wonder what, or who, McAloran invokes or implicates here. Who renders them, into these states? Nature, design, a creator, what is this drive to give life and in this manner, strip life away from the living?
They become the “gathered bones, dressed in naked amber”, stripped of flesh but bearing the hues that echo that flesh against bones that are now the only remnants, and “the marrow burns”.
Who is implicated, a deity, a creator? “Guillotine of Nothingness/ Cutting the screams/ From the absurd” ? Are we just extinguished, like the snuffed candle? Or is there more to it?
The “absurd”, depending on the literary and historical point of view, are often those who subscribe to the unknowable, to conclusions that are not only a stretch to settle but whose characteristics are unfathomable. To be so certain of the unknowable is therefore “absurd” as is the idea of ascribing some higher purpose for the living- according to such schools of thought. If there is a plan, if we have significance- how would we ever become aware of it? There might be more, but we won’t know it- that is a common theme in “absurdist” thought and one that comes to mind while reading these poems. I don’t know that the poet intends that connection in his choice of words, but there are some parallels in the kinds of questions raised in such work.
I won’t go so far as the say that McAloran was actively pursuing such lines of thinking in this collection- but I do think he is getting into this territory whether he is mindful of any deliberate effort to do so or not. He still makes mention of the nothingness, the black sky, the vague sense that there is a force at work upon this body that is rendered in various states of leaving. Does the body vanish, to the ethers? What becomes of the gathered bones?
We know that there is the distinction between earthly significance, on earth they bear the “earthen kiss of tears” in their burial. (“meat to tear”) But then all is empty.
When McAloran states “I am the impotent flame of absence” the reader again wonders about real absence, “absolute absence” – and what he intends to say here about being truly gone, and is there such a thing? Later, in “Skull”, the vault becomes the skull, again the focus shifts back and forth between death as processed in the intellectual sense and death and questions of significance in the context of our spiritual beliefs. (or lack of) The “salve” and “heavenly smoke” is telling here: salve comforts, salve heals, salve lessens the sting.
Is the desire to be more than a flame, snuffed, our salve? Is it our way of dealing with mortality? To me, these are poems about mortality, they focus on the flesh that falls away to bone but McAloran is expressing a very specific regard for these remains that echo what he seems to see as the corporeal context: the body becomes as dust, shit, and existence like spitting at the black sky. The damned are the living, futile.
The first time I read The Gathered Bones, I found that it was easy to cruise through the pages because of the succinct style of his writing and the brevity of the lines. In that first read, however, I missed many details that when strung together made the collection take on an entirely different meaning. Michael McAloran’s poetry can be read quickly, but I have now learned not to do so and will not underestimate his ability to bring layers of complexity to a relatively simple construction.
The Gathered Bones, originally published by Calliope Nerve, now reissued through Bone Orchard Press, is available here