Review: The Smallest of Bones by Holly Lyn Walrath

cover of The Smallest of Bones by Holly Lynn WalrathThe Smallest of Bones by Holly Lyn Walrath
Clash Books (September 28, 2021)
90 pages; $14.95 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage

Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Liminality, and Analog. She is the author of Glimmerglass Girl (Finishing Line Press, 2018), winner of the Elgin Award for best speculative chapbook, and Numinose Lapidi, a chapbook in Italian from Kipple Press. Her newest collection is The Smallest of Bones, a collection of minimalist poems that deal with the body and the horrors found within.

What makes The Smallest of Bones such an interesting collection is the form itself. Each “section” begins with a microfiction (possibly a prose poem?) about the bone in question. Walrath moves down the body, from Cranium all the way to Calcaneus, with myriad stops in between. Within each section, then, are a series of untitled and fragmented poems ripe with imagery and connotation. There are times Walrath seem to stop her lines early, almost purposefully, to allow the reader to fill in blanks on their own. For example, from the “Sacrum” section, the poem:

you meander through my dreams
like the ghost you made out of my future

we are bottled up
with each other
and the message

seems to imply a line or two missing. This skeletal structure is clearly deliberate, as the whole book is about bones and the horrors that haunt them. In the same way that ghosts or spirits are only partially there, at the corners and the edges of things, so to are Walrath’s poems. This makes for a very unique read, especially when so much contemporary horror poetry is overwrought or overly wordy. Walrath’s poems are more fragile and delicate, very much like bones themselves, and ask the reader to give them body and form.

This does not mean, however, that they are without purpose or power. There are many poets who aim for minimalism only to miss the mark and read as too meager to contain any content. Walrath has certainly found a balance between the minimal and the poignant, and her verses force the reader to deal with many of the horrors of life. There are poems about sex and gender, poems about sexuality, poems about longing and heartbreak, poems about politics, etc. This collection runs the gamut of emotions and topics, and yet maintains a cohesivity that is impressive. It’s a shorter collection, especially when considering the minimalist aspect of the bulk of the work, but it holds together well despite the various entry points Walrath chooses, which speaks to her talent as a poet as well as the strength of the poems as whole.

Overall, The Smallest of Bones is a strong collection of poetry. While not the gruesome body horror that the title might imply, it is a book both intimate and perturbing. It’s the kind of horror that lingers within the reader long after the covers have closed, and there are lines that readers will keep returning to again and again. Walrath has already proven herself to be an incredible speculative poet with her award-winning Glimmerglass Girl, and The Smallest of Bones only keeps that streak going. This is certainly a book that any horror reader and poetry reader should pursue.

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