Wild Witness: Patrick Friesen’s A Short History of Crazy Bone

A crazy bone might be crazy (mad) or cracked (crazed) or just a funny bone that feels weird when you hit it. In Friesen’s take, it’s all three, which is not either half so funny nor crazy as it looks. It’s mostly cracked open and broken with fine lines, a hollow bone you whistle through. Such bones are war whistles. Men blow in them. Women sing.

Friesen’s blowing is a long poem, a trickster sequence, a knotted memory string of storytelling, and a highly-shaped lyrical evocation of a woman and a soul at the edge of bodily and spiritual endurance. Resistance and resilience are power here, as are humour and high literary craft. Usually these days, authenticity is gained by vernacular language. Friesen’s substance is drawn from Western literature, spirituality and philosophy. “How do I know god / when I don’t believe?” asks Crazy Bone, or “she dances around an oak / her breath going ragged.” Friesen uses a whole bag of literary refinements to give this trickster strength. Philosophy is his medicine bundle.

Friesen’s bone whistle songs are musically structured around the bones of a narrative. These poems are in the body of a woman so much of the land that she is poverty-struck upon it. Crazy Bone’s particular form of wisdom is to return Western philosophical and literary tradition to the soil — the often hopeless homelessness of life outside of the towns supposedly built to transmit its values. Because this fancy dance side-step actually matches the state of the country, there is nothing that is not genuine. It’s unusual, though.

Friesen’s forerunner in this work is Howard A. Norman’s “Wishing Bone Cycle,” a series of translations of the trickster poems of the Swampy Cree. They should be read as a pair, across generations. Before Canada became quintessentially urban, it had a connection to the earth that flowed through many different social paths. This is one. It asks again an old question: how does a new soul live on this land within the knowledge of old ones, while integrating its knowledge of the present?”; or, in trickster talk, “walking towards nothing / as usual // and always getting there / for sure.”

Walking backwards is a good answer. In the most common contemporary sense, Canada is a mercantile idea, not a place but a capitalist playground. As one of the homeless women retrieved from silence, Crazy Bone puts the lie to that usurpation of identity. On the other hand, there’s a way of meeting the land that is a conversation among souls. Crazy Bone puts the lie to that too. That’s what tricksters do. They open a third door, in between silences and dead ideas, which allows us to be human. Crazy Bone buries her sacred mirror in the earth, where it sees the dark. “I know only / the owl // and its / plunder // the horse unbridled.” No punctuation. No meaning. Language leading to the world but refusing the romantic gesture of setting it free.

This is a wise book of witness.


Harold Rhenisch’s book of ghazals, Two Minds, is forthcoming from Frontenac House in the Fall of 2015. It is his 12th full-length collection of poems. He professionally edits poetry, nonfiction, and fiction and writes 3 blogs, including earthwords.net, an ongoing dictionary of English as a human-earth interface.



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