Jul 24 2021
Poetry review – RIB: Rennie Halstead admires Sharon Black’s inventive poetic exploration of many kinds of rib.
Rib by Sharon Black examines the nature of ribs, particularly the human kind that break so easily after a fit of coughing. She also considers the boneless octopus, the trauma of becoming a human sacrifice, the preparation of barbecued spare ribs, sand on the beach and wrecked ships.
The opening poems seem to possess a personal quality, as if the poet is retelling her own experience with the fragility of her bones. Other poems focus on the importance of appearance and beauty (‘Corset’), anorexia (‘Architect’) and cosmetic surgery in ‘Fox’.
The pamphlet starts with the frustrated ‘Scan’ which feels autobiographical. The narrator receives the news that his/her ribs have been severely damaged by radiation treatment and that his/her life has been permanently changed, with the banning of a catalogue of everyday activities, from laundry and egg collection to more precious ones like laughing and sex. No wonder the narrator shows her frustration in ‘the angry way / I jab my laptop keys.’
‘Scan’ sets the stage for the rest of the pamphlet, looking at ribs in a variety of manifestations. The first few poems focus on the human ribcage, its functions and fragility. ‘Definitions’ is written in off-set lines to look like the ribs, with nine couplets, and ‘Medical’ returns to the ease with which ribs can be broken:
as a case is lifted from a train, a stack of logs is carted to the house, a grandchild swept up for a cuddle.
After the initial exploration of ribs and their human connections, Black takes us through her musings on other sorts of ribs. The ribs of a wrecked ship feature in ‘Wreck’, the only memory of lives lost when a ship foundered. The short, but delightful ‘Octopus’ offers a view of a life free of the shortcomings of the human rib:
If I were boneless - […] would my body move like breath [?]
We see a more gruesome aspect of the human rib in ‘Tlaltecuhtli’, the mythological Aztec goddess of fertility, to whom sacrifice has to be made. The goddess is pictured bored, trying to distract herself: ‘with beads / and music, wolves and bears.’ despite the freshly sacrificed victim’s heart ‘throbbing / in a carved stone bowl.’ Her desolation and need increases: ‘Her thirst // is the horizon, fills her throat / like dust.’ until the solution to her desolate, world-changing ennui appears:
A young man dripping gold and feathers steps up to the altar, chest burning.
‘Beach’ describes the ribs of sand left on the beach by a receding tide. The barefoot narrator looks for the richness of shore life: ‘rock pools, crabs, a jellyfish / rinsed from its element.’ before linking the creatures to the life force deep inside all of us, and manifested by our beating hearts, drawing us all together:
even those clouds, bleached, hung out to dry, will break to ripples if you press your finger through the surface of the sky.
‘Juices’ takes us into different territory altogether, with a recipe for barbecuing spare ribs (we’ve already visited a rack of lamb in ‘Rack’). The recipe sounds delicious:
honey and herbs, elegant smokehouse maple, wild mountain cumin.
followed by advice:
Cover with sweet words. Bake at a low temperature until tender. Avoid criticism. […] to heal the deepest cut.
Overall, Black offers us a playful and tongue-in-cheek exploration of the understanding we have of the various roles of ribs in our lives. Most enjoyable.