Bone Key Elegies
by Danielle Sellers
Reviewed by Heather Matesich Cousins
Danielle Sellers’s first book of poetry, Bone Key Elegies, is a staring contest with death. In this impressive, autobiographically-inspired debut, Sellers examines Key West, evoking the geography of her childhood and adolescence. The poet-speaker of these poems has moved from Key West, but she is haunted by memories of home and a cast of family, friends, and former lovers.
Bone Key Elegies is filled with highly charged, beautifully devastating poems about lost loved ones, including the poet’s father, who died of a heart aneurysm when she was nineteen, and—most heartbreakingly—her younger sister, Alesha, who died in a 1983 car crash. Grandparents, ex-lovers, a murdered friend, and a sexually-abused classmate round-out an assemblage whose presences and absences fill these pages. Rather than striking the expected minor chord, the down-drifting sigh or moan of an elegy, Bone Key Elegies insists on “slamming,” “rustling,” “slapping,” asserting a deep energy that propels itself forward against the sleight-of-hand of time.
These poems bloom with the textures and tastes of southern Florida: US-1, Navy jets, cane toads, salt ponds, hibiscus, tequila, salt, conches, bonefish, and yellow rice. Sellers creates a world and then whisks it out from underneath us, making us aware that, despite the evocative sensory details, we have only been provided with glimpses. The focus often zooms out: fish spook at the echo of human voices, a father disappears in darkness under an “anemic moon,” a 19th century bride searches among flotsam for a corpse, whale bones sit in a backyard, “bleached white and forgotten,” and a lover stands “mouth open, kissing nothing but the sea.” Such images of dissolution allow Sellers to recreate her speaker’s experiences: death, violence, change, and movement.
The opening poem, “Winter Elegy,” set in the speaker’s early childhood, asserts the theme of loss by turning in its final lines: after a parade of Floridian imagery—jalousie windows, seaweed smells, blooming cacti, rustling bottlebrush, a mother’s sighs and a father’s snores, the poem steps back, concluding, “…I never imagined / this was not the way it would always be.” The rest of the collection continues to dissect this loss, exploring what no longer exists or what has been grossly altered.
In the final poem, “December Evening, Key West,” the speaker describes mullet circling in a canal behind her house: “Some thing unseen hunts them, / most likely barracuda.” What pursues these fish makes them “raise their silver bellies to the sun, / flashing like strobe-lights under water.” The final line Bone Key Elegies evokes a suicidal impulse: “How close I came to jumping in.” However, this line could also be read as expressing the speaker’s connection to life. Like the mullet, the speaker flees a “thing unseen,” but she still lives, even with a soft part of herself exposed. This is a poem about writing: bereavement has led to the flashing strobe-lights of these poems.
Sellers’s debut is difficult to put down, emotionally involved and full of unforgettable imagery. While the speaker may identify with mullet, Sellers is a barracuda. Memory becomes clouded or shadowed, but the images, language, and music that rise out of these poems make Bone Key Elegies sparkling, sharp, dangerous, hunting as much as haunting, and very much alive.