Robert Pinsky has published three previous books of poems and three books of prose. History of My Heart, his last book of poems, received The Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Prize in 1984.The Want Bone, contains twenty-five new poems carefully arranged around a prose piece placed in the middle of the volume. In the new work, Pinsky demonstrates an impressive technical skill as well as an interest in a wide range of subject matter.
Though there are no sections in the book, it divides thematically into two halves, with the prose piece at the center. The first half of the volume addresses more overtly religious issues and the second half seems more secular or personal. Elements of myth and religion found in the first half are continued throughout, however, and personal issues crop up in the first half as well.
“From the Childhood of Jesus” is the opening poem, an impressive debut in slant-rhymed couplets that relates a parable about Jesus at five years old. Playing outdoors, Jesus innocently “modeled twelve sparrows out of the river clay// And scooped a clear pond, with a dam of twigs and mud.” It is the Sabbath, and “a certain Jew” comes by, scolds the child, and runs to Joseph to complain.
When Joseph rebukes him, Jesus sends the birds away with a clap of his hands. All seems well until another boy (“The son of Annas the scribe”) comes by and begins to destroy the dam and pond which Jesus had made. Emphasizing Jesus’ human qualities, Pinsky describes him flying into a rage. Jesus shouts at the other boy and delivers a stinging prophecy: “Now you are going to wither// The way a tree does, you shall bear no fruit/ And no leaves, you shall wither down to the root.” The prophecy is immediately fulfilled.
“From the Childhood of Jesus” makes an interesting start to The Want Bone with its unlikely portrait of an angry child-Jesus figure acting not compassionately but vindictively. The equilibrium that exists at the poem’s end is one of horror and sadness. Everyone sleeps except in the household of the withered boy. Even nature appears stunned; the birds fly “aimlessly as if never to alight.”
“Memoirs,” the book’s second poem, moves to the modern world and tells of the poet’s Jewish heritage passed in word and icon from generation to generation. With a refrain line, “I am this, and not that,” the poet also describes a child’s growing awareness of his difference from others. Now an adult, asked questions by his son, the poet tells him of the Jews’ past. In both of these early poems, Pinsky seeks to define Judaism and its relationship to Christianity. The two seem to be diametrically opposed at times here, and are often antagonistic.
Besides collective history, another theme in The Want Bone is language. “Window” and “The Refinery” both ponder the origins of language. In “Window,” the book’s third poem, the child learns words in a world filled with sensory detail and the delightful dissonance of culture in a large city. In what sounds like an almost universal first memory, the poet recalls being held up to see “snowfall out the window.”
Whether it was the poet’s mother teaching him to speak or not (and the poet seems to want to obscure this point), Pinsky describes the child’s utter delight in the word snow—“you opened your small brown fist/ And closed it and opened again to hold the refiection/ Of torches and faces inside the window glass.” Language becomes the poet’s “window” to the world. Cloudy or opaque sometimes, it is at other times transparent, and shows the world outside as “that bright confusion.”
“The Refinery” is grouped with several poems that use industrial images (refineries, hammers, sweatshops). Almost completely the opposite of “Window,” “The Refinery” envisions mythic gods, not a personal memory. The gods wake up hungry for words, as though language is food: “a pollen tinted/ Slurry of passion and lapsed/ Intention, whose imagined/ Taste made the savage deities hiss and snort.” In this poem, people in cities are the gods’ aphids or worker bees, processing language like honey for them. Indiscriminately, they drink up everything: “Lovecries and memorized Chaucer, lines from movies.” This world is far from the child’s world of wonder at one word. In “The Refinery,” words are merely another substance for consumption like oil, air, or water, though they may be more sweet.
The book’s title poem describes a world of sand and sea. At first, this world seems free of all human influence or interference. The want bone is the “dried mouthbones of a shark” and it lies, stripped bare, on a bare beach. Pinsky calls the bone, “A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.” This want bone is fixed in a position which shapes an “O,” which transforms the poem into a commentary on language. Something primitive—a survival instinct—makes the bones finally “sing.” They sing of desire and hunger, and the most...