Rob Dennis

The Finger Bone

Kevin Prufer
Carnegie Mellon, 2002
$12.95 (paper)
ISBN 0-88748-366-6

Kevin Prufer's newest collection The Finger Bone is predominantly about various forms of disaster-emotional, natural, technological, historical—many of which he intertwines. In the poem "Terrible Love," for example, we read about a newlywed couple whose marriage falls apart in tandem with the house they've just moved into, a house that the natural world has begun to reclaim. In "Frightened Figure with Horse," a man caught in a hail storm crouches beneath his horse for shelter, and we see that even the natural world cannot provide adequate protection from natural disaster: "imagine those too-thin legs buckling, / the belly collapsing onto the frightened figure." In "Lab Nightmare," Prufer gives us technological disaster. A scientist drops a glass slide and contaminates his laboratory with a virus. And in the poems that finish the collection, such as "The End of the City" and "Trompe L'oeil," we witness the slow demise of society as one narrator assures us that he "did not provoke the avenues into such a silence" and another says, "Please don't ask me to explain."

With a disaster at nearly every turn, The Finger Bone is not a collection that inspires hope or lifts the spirit. It is not something to read in the morning over coffee in order to get pumped up and ready to start the day. But then again, n
either is the newspaper. Perhaps Prufer is providing us with a collection that reflects our own enchantment with disaster, our fascination with bad news and tragedy. We look into the mirror of The Finger Bone and are rattled and unnerved by what we see. Prufer's friends have even gone so far to call the collection "spooky1," but if it is indeed "spooky," it is not just the profusion of disasters that makes it so. Rather, the spookiness is epiphenomenal, arising from the sense of detachment that saturates nearly every poem.

In "Things are Inherent in Things," a poem about a man trapped in a room inside a burning hotel, we see an example of the often disturbing detachment Prufer's narrators assume throughout the collection.

We are deranged, I thought, building our rooms so high.
Deranged-the hotel roof coughing fire, the windows choking on their own glass.
And the people in the street, faces lit, eyes dilated,
in each pupil a single orange spark-also, deranged.

The narrator is so removed from the situation that he can't even bring himself to "wave or shout [his] presence / to those below," can only "[sit] by the window on the edge of the bed . . . until the lights [go] out." He seems resigned to his fate, and this resignation breeds just the kind of objectivity Prufer needs to make such a bold statement as "We are deranged." Note that the narrative I here moves from including himself in the "We" to distancing himself from it, making "the people in the street . . . also, deranged." They are deranged in a different way, however, a way with which the narrator cannot identify. The result on the page is that the narrator, in struggling to identify and thereby connect himself to the world, finds detachment his only possibility. The result off the page is twofold. On the one hand, we identify with the narrator and assume his detachment. But at the same time, we can't help but feel implicated along with "the people in the street." As we read, as we oscillate between identification and implication, the narrator's inability to connect with the world (even the inanimate world, for the hotel is also deranged) becomes our own. Prufer's poems force their sense of detachment on us, and the result is indeed spooky.

The Finger Bone fails, however, to consistently sustain its spookiness. In poems like "My Other Self," "The Boys," and "Nancy Drew and the Secret," we see breaches in the disturbing dream Prufer has created. The tone of these poems doesn't fit. If they exude any detachment at all, it arises not out of disaster or tragedy. In the poem "The Boys," for example, we are overcome by an almost heart-warming sense of nostalgia as two old women, one eating ice cream, watch "boys with wide smiles and perfect hands" drift down a river on rafts. While this poem is linked thematically to poems later in the collection (e.g. a finger bone is found in a bowl of ice cream in the poem "Ars Poetica"), it does not leave us uneasy like most of the other poems do. The same goes for "My Other Self" and "Nancy Drew and the Secret." They seem out of place even in the first section, and their arrangement does not achieve the quiet frenzy that characterizes the rest of The Finger Bone. But perhaps we should give Prufer the benefit of the doubt here. These are good poems, and being that they appear in the first section of the collection, we might envision them as a kind of high quality, calm before the coming storm of disaster-detachment.

Let us end on quality, then. For if we are not impressed by Prufer's ability to enact detachment, we are nonetheless dazzled by his extraordinary versatility with language, by how he moves fluidly from the sparse and jarring lines of "Lab Nightmare," to the drawn-out music of "The Last of the Storm Windows." Though The Finger Bone may force us to recognize that "we are deranged," it nonetheless persistently encourages us to take pleasure in that recognition.

1 "My friends who have read the manuscript call it spooky. 'But spooky in a good way,' they tell me. I can't say I set out to write spooky poems, but there you are." (Prufer in the Notre Dame Review, #12, 2001)



© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review