Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Democracy of Bones

The Democracy of Bones

By Kwame Dawes

On New Year's Eve my friend, a quite well-known poet and novelist, texted me a picture of an x-Ray. I suspected it was a humerus, as I could make out in the milky blue serenity of the x-Ray a shoulder ball and socket joint. Then I noticed a disconnect, ordinary really: the break. The gentle line of the largest bone in the image was interrupted, the two ends quietly out of reach—one slanting away from the other. This calm image belied the violence of the break on the surface, the pain, the immobility, the raw nakedness of rupture. “I never expected it to hurt so much,” he wrote to me. I winced.

The thing is, I don't think my friend thought twice about exposing himself in this way. He would not show his exposed skin to me on a text message, but something deeper in, presumably more intimate, he did not mind sharing and I certainly did not mind seeing. Our bones are not private; they are not secrets. We seem happy to expose them.

I started to think about this and the phrase I came up with was “the democracy of bones.” I could have said “the universality of bones” but I have vowed never to use the term “universal” anywhere near poetry (long story), so while it is probably more accurate than “democracy,” I am sticking to my vow.

The core point, though, is not altered by the choice of terms: in a curious way, bones remind us that below the surface of skin and hair and beards and clothes and fat and muscle is this ordinary common architecture of our mortality, our commonness. Our bones must remind us of our deaths and death is the site of our greatest communion. This makes sense. The bone is what we are reduced to, is it not?

But we live with our bones and the older we get, we think about those bones for the way they seem to fail us and betray us. I am fifty-one years old now, and I think of my hips and knees as things I may have to replace at some point. Every day, I think of those sockets—indeed, I think of them several times a day. I never used to do this, not really. But now I do.

Of course, I have lived with other bones acutely present in my imagination for thirty six of my fifty-one years on this earth. I have a limp. I limp because my ankle hurts. My right ankle was crushed in a car accident when I was six. The pathetic job done on it all those years ago has ensured that each day I negotiate pain. In fact, I am constantly adjusting and readjusting the bones, constantly tying to find the sweet spot of painlessness. Even now, standing here, typing this, I am adjusting, and then settling into the comfort of support—high boots, stillness, painlessness, before the next move. I don’t think of nerves. I think of bones—tiny bits of bones floating around under the skin.

This morning I went out to clear our driveway. I was playing the music of the amazing Ivorian singer Dobet Gnahore on my iPhone. The snow was that perfect combination of slip and hold—a splendid dancing surface even in clunky boots. So I danced and shoveled. I was negotiating pain—managing the torque and ease of movement, alert to every twinge. I think of those bones a lot. I imagine them to be a deformed gathering of tiny bones without security and support, without the wisdom that comes with reliable and natural use. My ankle has compromised around pain, leaving me with a kind of deformity. It is a perfect metaphor for my human experience.

The ankle, the right ankle, is my thorn. I remember once, at a crusade, putting the thought of healing it out there like a fleece to prove something amazing, dramatic. I prayed for it to heal. I felt fire in my body, tongues on my lips, and warmth in my ankle. I waited as the preacher prayed. And then he was done, but I still waited, not daring to move the foot to see if the pain would hit me. I would not look to see if the huge distended knot of bone had reformed into something normal. But eventually I moved. It was still a messed-up ankle, it still hurt. This, I decided, in my early holiness, was my thorn. My bones would live with me for the rest of my life, hurting me, reminding me of my mortality.

I lived in Ghana when I saw the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. I remember vaguely the fleece, the sea, and a man tied to the mast of a ship looking terribly uncomfortable. But it is the army of bone soldiers that haunted me for years. They used swords, they fought and strangely died, which made no sense to me but that did not diminish their terror. Skeleton soldiers were the ultimate monsters, I reasoned. They were already dead and so un-killable.

The English word bone is a fine poetic word. The sound is delicious because of the softening nasal sound that rhymes with the bilabial breathy “b” sound. And, of course, the vowel sound is that echoey “o” that carries in a theater. It is one of those Anglo Saxon words that has barely changed over the years—snub-nosed, punchy, and thick with allusive possibilities. To bone is both to take the bones out of something and to put the bones into something. The bone is a horn, it is the primal weapon, it is an erection, it is the act of sex, it is a gratuitous gift, it is what we become.

When Tom Feelings created his monumental art book about the middle passage, he tried to recreate the path of ships across the Atlantic. In a stunning illustration, the bed of the Atlantic is a boneyard—reminiscent of the elephant graveyards of central Africa. August Wilson, in his play Gem of the Ocean, would call this place the City of Bones. It would be the ultimate place for the African in the Americas—return, awareness, harrowing, release, freedom.

At first I did not understand Shakespeare’s phrase, “The good is oft interred with their bones,” but I understood bones. Bones offer the poet so much to work with, so many possibilities, which is why I am surprised that it has taken us this long to select it as a theme for our FUSION series. Perhaps we were weary of the potential for cliché in the exploration of this business of bones. It is a good caution. And I believe we have successfully avoided the easy ways of thinking about bones. The Singapore poets have found a fascinating sensuality in their exploration of bones, but like the poets we recovered from the Prairie Schooner archives, they have unearthed a wide and complex range of possibilities.

Someone said that all poetry is about death or perhaps the contention with mortality. This would be profound were it not possible to argue that all life is about death in the most basic of philosophical ways. But even if it is obvious, it does not prevent us from discovering the rich pleasures of defying death, lamenting death, and celebrating our capacity to survive the bones. At the end of the day, this is what this season’s FUSION offers: something wholly celebratory and wonderfully democratic, or universal, I suppose.


Photo by

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Kwame Dawes is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon Press), as well as two novels, numerous anthologies, and plays. He has won Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy and was the 2013 awardee of the Paul Engel Prize. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor's Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. Dawes is the Associate Poetry Editor at Peepal Tree Press, the Series editor of the University of South Carolina Poetry Series, and the Founding Director of the African Poetry Book Fund. Dawes teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is Director of the biennial Calabash International Literary Festival.

Return To TOC