Mel Ruth is a PhD student at Georgia State University, with a focus on poetry. Mel has pieces published in Pleiades, Emerson Review, New Pages, and more. They were a Slice Literary Magazine “Bridging the Gap” Finalist, and their chapbook A Name Among Bone, was a semi-finalist in the 2020 Black River Chapbook Contest, and the winner of the 2021 Cow Creek Chapbook contest. They/them or she/her/hers. Follow them on Twitter @Mel_Ruth_.
A Name Among Bone is Mel Ruth’s first poetry collection. It won the 2021 Cow Creek Chapbook Prize held by Pittsburg State University and was published by Emerald City Press in 2022.
The heavy-weighted title is followed by an acknowledgment page containing the brief two words preface “for Nan-Nan.” Both reveal the main melody of this collection: family and lineage. The relationship with one’s grandparents can be as intimate and impactful as one’s parents. They are farther in blood distance but may be closer in family history. Ruth’s poems in this collection depict the beauty and mystery of that relationship in her family.
Figurative language is Ruth’s strong suit in this collection. Metaphors are dense and they carry symbolic meanings.
“Running Waters” is the first poem in the book. The title is a metaphor suggesting generations passing down like water in a waterfall. Ruth starts the poem with the speaker calling her father about her confusion about the family genealogy. She describes the sound of her name as “crisp like embered / leaves littering dirt.” (4-5) Then she uses a parallel structure to show contrast: “You wanted / a son, I wanted not to be // here atop this mountain.” (5-7)
The latest generation in the family, though the youngest, represents the successful extension of blood, and gets the most attention, like a mountain top the family looks to. It also shows the speaker’s awareness of her father’s expectations of her and her stress of being the focus of the family. As Ruth continues to trace up, she adds more metaphors. “The dirt / our bed and we return” is another powerful one to show people’s final fate. By the end, Ruth brings in the shooting target image, one that she repeats several times in this collection, to symbolize her trying to find the missing puzzle of her ancestry or to decipher her family’s genealogy.
Parallel with Ruth’s imaginative figures is her economy of words. The poem “View-Master: Revisited” is a narrative poem about the speaker’s Nan-Nan. It starts with how Nan-Nan is called, then what Nan-Nan means to the speaker’s family. In an extended metaphor, which contains 4 lines or 21 words, Ruth describes Nan-Nan’s function and contribution to the family, also how Nan-Nan’s sudden death brings trauma to them.
….. …..She was the thread
….. …..that bound us like the patchwork
….. …..of a story quilt, cut too soon, creating
….. …..chaos in the fallout. (3-6)…..
The metaphor implies the warm feeling the speaker feels for Nan-Nan, and the attention the family gets from Nan-Nan. However, Nan-Nan’s funeral has some chaotic scenes: “Shattered / glass angels, broken bloody noses, a pink / marbled coffin.” This scene is disappointing. Not what Nan-Nan asked for, and not what the speaker’s Pop-Pop wanted for her. By the end, Ruth continues to paint the scene with concise language: “Stolen knick-knacks / in the lounge, bitter / coffee, fake sugar.” (10-12)
The last three lines are a pun, suggesting both the literal and metaphorical meanings: knick-knacks, like good memories, were stolen, and the sweet words from people at the funeral are like fake sugar, not genuine. The coffee is bitter as the loved one is gone. In 3 lines of 8 words, Ruth draws a scene that arouses a lot of imagination and association in the reader’s mind.
Later in the collection, “Outside Your Skin You Are Narrative” is a poem that reveals both Ruth’s extraordinary storytelling skills and ability to embed strong imagery in her poetry.
The opening line draws interesting pictures in the reader’s mind, hooks them to read on, and leads them to imagine the scenes: “Cleanse everything with lavender. Your / body, your home, us.” As the reader reads on, they get to know that this is not the speaker’s voice, but Pop-pop’s memory of his mother, the speaker’s Nan-Nan. Then Ruth sketches vivid, dynamic pictures with sensual five senses:
….. …..hair in salt scented breezes
….. …..engulfing carnivals and oceans,
….. …..or whipping out of half open
….. …..windows in a rusted station?
….. …..wagon, rolling down highways
….. …..to Tennessee. (3-9)
The sight of “long hair,” the smell of “scented breezes,” and the contrast of hair flying in the open windows against a “rusted station wagon” together paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Each word is imaginative and concrete. They reflect the difference between reality and dream. “You / believed in angels, but / your ancestors called them ghosts” (Ruth 10-12) suggests the gaps between family generations or different interpretations of life dreams. By the end, Ruth keeps painting rich and beautiful pictures in the carnival:
….. …..of Ferris Wheels and merry-
….. …..go-rounds in neon
….. …..lights, chasing Elvis, chasing
….. …..angels. Only part of
….. …..this was. (14-18)
The ending adds multiple layers of meaning to the poem. From concrete, fancy images of “Ferris Wheels and merry-go-rounds in neon lights” to slowly move to more symbolic images like “chasing Elvis” and his song in Tennessee, then to move to what the poet is doing now – her pursuit of art, poetry. This poem covers a long time and a broad space to arouse the reader’s imagination.
The last poem in the collection “Memoir: A Poem” adds the memoir element to poetry. Its last line provides the title for this collection, and it is also a lyric poem that reflects Ruth’s strength in using images to stir the reader’s emotions. It’s another poem for Nan-Nan.
The open line “I read you gone” composes a one-line stanza. It sets the grave tone for the poem. The large amount of white space allows the reader to digest the heavy topic. Instead of telling the reader her helpless and sad feeling, Ruth depicts it in imagery:
….. …..Like baby bunny rescued
….. ………. ………. ………. ………. …….from dog’s crushing grip
….. …..only to be collected for death. (3-4)
The image hits the reader with pain and grief. Then Ruth draws a lighter, livelier picture following this grim topic: “I // want to see galaxies on my / nails, feel civilizations on / my palms.” This shows the contrast between reality and dreams. The ending is another picture Ruth composes to embody the theme of the poem, also the theme of the book:
….. ………. ………. ………. …I need
….. ………. ………. ………. ………. ….to dance. To be
….. …..the solid center of bright
….. ………. ………. ………. ………. ….pink target. To count
….. …..each grain of rice. To have
….. ………. ………. ………. …found a name among bone. (9-14)
Even with Nan-Nan’s passing away, Ruth understands she cannot be broken. She needs to stay calm and collected, for her ancestors, and also for her dream. She needs to put herself together to be the solid center of a target, counting the memories like counting the grains of rice. She has Nan-Nan in her blood and bone and will never forget her. The repeating shooting or target images in the first and the last poems echo, both reflecting the speaker’s goal: to hit the target right.
A Name Among Bone reflects Mel Ruth’s free and mature use of the different poetic craft elements in her work. Her figurative language, natural talent with imagery, and storytelling ability contribute to making this collection as strong as the title suggests, meanwhile generating an everlasting effect on the reader’s mind.
Discover more about Mel and her work here!
Zhihua Wang is a poetry candidate in the Arkansas Writers’ MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas. She worked as the Managing Editor of Arkana from 2019-2020. Her recent work is shown/forthcoming in Aji Magazine, Last Leaves, San Pedro River Review, Nurture, The Curator, Eunoia Review, Down in the Dirt, and Writers Resist. She is working on her first poetry collection: Faraway Hometown.