The Finger Bone
Carnegie Mellon, 2002
$12.95 (paper) ISBN
Kevin Prufer's newest collection The Finger Bone is predominantly
about various forms of disaster-emotional, natural, technological,
historicalmany 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
We are deranged, I thought, building our rooms so high.
Deranged-the hotel roof coughing fire, the windows choking on their
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)