On “Bone Antler Stone”: Ancient Europe, the Narrow Book & Finding Poetry Again

My poetry collection Bone Antler Stone—a panorama of ancient Europe from the painted caves of Lascaux to contact with Greece and Rome—comes out on Thursday. You can order it here. Here’s an essay on how it came to be written:

BAS front

The poems of Bone Antler Stone go way back, as a book about ancient history probably should. My way in to archaeology was the moment in 2003 when I realized that the protagonist of my long poem, To the House of the Sun, was an Irish immigrant to America. I wanted the Celtic myths to be in his DNA, and so to start I found Thomas Kinsella’s wonderful version of The Táin and Jeffrey Gantz’s translations of key stories in Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Just as important, though, was Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton’s In Search of Ancient Ireland—both the documentary and companion book—which, while touching on mythology, was taken up mostly with aspects of history and archaeology that were new to me.

But back in 2003 I still had ten years left with To the House of the Sun, which meant that I put archaeology aside. By the time it was finished, I was exhausted and aimless. I still felt the urge for poetry, and for years had been amassing hundreds of prose poems based on historical subjects, but they had proved a dead end, or at best an exercise for the future. Significantly, the earliest new poems I attempted were about the nature preserve my wife and I took hikes at; these poems were important, but also rare and tentative. Then, in late August of 2013, Seamus Heaney died, and I finally felt door inching open again. I listened to every podcast that was now replaying archival interviews with Heaney, and felt that something of what he had represented had been lost and that, if possible, I would carry it on in my own way.

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The Narrow Book, & early burial poem

I was doubtful, though. While poetry is obviously a matter of inspiration, in the end it’s still more of a marathon for me. That first moment of stimulus and vision is important, but for it to last it has to transform into a slow and careful accumulation; and so I knew that taking poetry up again merely out of mourning was asking for failure. But I thought it best to invite that failure, since I knew that if I pushed through to the other side, I would have earned it; and so I bought what I call the Narrow Book, the smallest blankbook I could find, measuring three by seven inches. It wasn’t really meant for the writing of poetry, and indeed that was the point: there was no chance of me getting seduced by the shape of lines or stanzas. Everything felt cramped, and I was only comfortable writing on the right-side pages, leaving the left-side for revisions. I would allow myself the barest possible pretense of writing poetry seriously again, only buying a proper blankbook once I had filled this one.

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The sunroom, with Narrow Book

By the end of November, though, I had done just that. I was writing poems again, and usually doing so on Saturday mornings in a small sunroom overlooking our backyard and garden. Later—especially in the dead of winter, when that unheated room was impossible to sit in—I sat in what is now my daughter’s room, at a desk I had bought as a teenager at a garage sale, figuring out words again. Those two months with the Narrow Book also coincided with my finally reading Peter Bogucki and Pam Crabtree’s Ancient Europe 8000 BC – 1000 AD: Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe, and from these months and this reading the first poems of Bone Antler Stone began to appear.

These were the poems from the section on burials, since it is there that much of what we know of prehistoric Europe is found: the clothes and jewelry they wore, the skins or sheets of tree-bark they were wrapped in or covered with, and the everyday or personal goods they were surrounded by, and of course the structures of the burial enclosures themselves. You can tell an awful lot about a culture by how they treat their dead, so that even if day-to-day life in ancient Europe seems to us pretty brutal, they at least knew how to commemorate the difficulties of that life.

For whatever reason I have always derived great comfort from the archeological descriptions of burials, and I wanted to turn those feelings (but also the bare archaeological facts), into poetry. The earliest of these burial poems appeared in late 2016, in Londongrip, and their matter-of-factness—almost denying any chance for a lyrical statement—was my way of trying to take the vernacular of archeology and the vocabulary of death as poetry enough. I wanted to treat the words and the items they describe, such as

he was buried with knives
and arrowheads, boars’ tusks
and with the earliest gold
of England wound into
his hair. And among some pots
were the knapping tools and
the small anvil of a smith

as inherently powerful somehow, and assume that they would acquire their own weight if organized just right. Compare this to one of the last poems written for the collection, on St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, published at isacoustic, and you can see how far I went from this sparseness to something to the literal movement of these lines:

In the sandstone walls of St. Magnus
are many migrations, many raids
and inroads and many an exodus,
many a generation spilling landless
out of the over-crowded north, farmless
and without wealth – or just caught up in youth
and ambition – with neighbors near and far
now the only ones to pay such debts.
Down from Denmark and Sweden and Norway
to Lindisfarne and Lisbon and into
the Mediterranean, or down
the eastern rivers to Constantinople,
down Volga and Dnieper to the Black Sea…..

 

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Draft of St. Magnus Cathedral

While I wrote a few more poems here and there, and read Barry Cunliffe’s astounding book Britain Begins, the second wave of poems didn’t come until two years, and after that trip Orkney. The Orkney islands in the far north of Scotland boast the largest and most concentrated collection of Neolithic sites anywhere in Britain, and the last twenty-five pages of Bone Antler Stone is a travelogue of sorts from that trip, poems I began writing immediately upon returning, as if by doing so I could deny that we had left. And indeed like a wave, and carrying on the power and lasting significance that came from actually seeing a handful of the sites I had written about in person—of literally putting my hand to their old stones—the rest of the book followed on that impulse. What I had learned from the poems I started with, about a nature preserve near my house, was now put to use describing some of the most primal and essential interactions between human beings and nature that I know of, whether through burials, the appropriation of stone and wood and plants for building, transportation and warfare, or for reverence and religious ritual.

 

And so, the month before my daughter was born—and since I didn’t know when I would have another month to focus on poetry—two or three dozen more poems came. As it happened, though, I’ve been at home with my daughter ever since, so that the final burst of poems—as well as the necessary reading behind them—came when she was only a few months old. During her first naps of the day I rediscovered that sunroom in warmest summer, and wrote the last batch of twenty or so poems, including those devoted to the bog bodies of northwestern Europe. Many of the poems didn’t survive—more than ninety were written, and at least a third were cut—but the mere appearance of them and the momentum they gave to the shape the book was itself an anchor and a scaffold. By the time the book had found a publisher, I read each draft aloud to my daughter, and the chewed-up and drooled-upon corners of the manuscript pages attest either to her interest, or her desire for me to read something like There’s a Monster at the End of This Book instead.

With these poems I also found a new way to write. I have said elsewhere that my models for To the House of the Sun are actually Hebrew and Mesopotamian poetry—or rather, Hebrew and Mesopotamian poetry in translation; and it’s for this reason that To the House of the Sun now strikes me as something I translated into English. So I was happy to find that the poems in Bone Antler Stone came to feel like a return to English, or just British and Irish, poetry. For many reasons I found a long study of the poetry from the Anglo-Saxons to the Victorians more attractive than a lot of contemporary poetry, and it seemed utterly natural to make the oldest tricks in the book—from the alliterative Anglo-Saxon line to iambic pentameter—into something of my own. And this was confirmed by the fact that, of the twelve journals who took poems from Bone Antler Stone, two were Irish, one Welsh, and four British—and that, of course, the book is being published first in Britain.

For a collection of poems that I purposely kept to myself for as long as I could—I didn’t submit them anywhere for three years—it was appropriate that I found belonging not in the sound or cadences of American poetry, and not even mostly with American poetry journals, but in the real earth the poems all sprang from. Never having felt terribly attached to America anyway, I could not think of writing the following lines, which close the book, with an American landscape in my head. Here, a traveler from ancient Europe speaks to me from beyond the grave, and assures me that my poems will find readers here or in the future. And in these lines there is the Norse myth where Odin calls up a reluctant seeress from her grave, or indeed many of the doom-laden but also visionary lines from the Anglo-Saxons:

And so the motive was to make meaning and memory
a kind of barrow burial in bloom
a garlanded grave underground
forged with turf and stone and fire and then forgotten,
until a propitious step or a sudden storm
blows open this book’s binding
and lays each line out in the light again,
shells of syllables dotting the sand.
To be summoned by someone is always a surprise, he said,
and someday I would feel a spade on my skull,
someday I would stand up and start singing,
but until then I should love the loneliness and its lessons,
and he bade me to build it well, to bury it well, and wait.