Monday, April 6, 2015

Monday Muse on 'Singing Bones'

Cover Art

Kate Schmitt's Singing Bones, awarded a Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award in 2013, is an astonishing memoir. Take it in hand, and it's difficult to put down, so beautiful is the writing. The book reads like poetry and fairy tale both, its bracketed chapter headings — [Once Upon a Time], [Here Be Dragons], [Glass Coffin], [Rescue], [Ever After], to give some idea — luring us into story. And, as story pieced together from what Schmitt deems "inherently faulty" memories, the book takes us deep into "a relationship with someone who died before [Schmitt] was born" and discloses "aspects of lives that [the author] never had the benefit of confirming before those people passed away or passed out of [Schmitt's] life." 

Telling the tale is, as Schmitt says, "a risky venture"; before she can understand the legacy bequeathed to her by "someone who died" — Schmitt's grandmother, only in her thirties when she committed suicide in 1957 — Schmitt, born in 1973, must travel a "downward-slanting trajectory" of her own. Eventually, she discovers that the map to her life is smudged and unfathomable; the "times and places overlap" until Schmitt can see only the "dark reflection" of the underworld.

As Schmitt seeks to learn answers to haunting questions about her grandmother's past, she notices how "my body changes every day like a wartime map. . . I draw battle lines and step over every one, each time re-drawing the landscape of self." "Inside", Schmitt writes, "things get darker. I go deeper."  Even as Schmitt understands that "Death is fighting for me", she wonders, "How long will it take for me to finally disappear?"

Schmitt cuts, feeling "a charge of electricity [go] through me, energy and spark." There are visits to psychiatrists, pills, hospitalization, a return to a dark world along "a trail of red pomegranate seeds". 

It is the discovery of additional tragic information about her grandmother that uncovers what is at the bottom of rivers of hate and sorrow, fire and oblivion. When at last Schmitt can see her grandmother's story "more clearly", her need to "scream a lament" is over: "All those years I didn't realize that this was a rescue mission—that I was supposed to go the underworld, but not to stay with you. I was supposed to bring you back."

Finally brought out of the shadows, the bequest of her grandmother reveals itself to Schmitt not in an image of blood that "makes its crooked path over my hip, down my leg" but as "a legacy I never saw. Survival."

What Schmitt movingly and intimately relates is a long, harrowing descent and a hugely difficult climb back into "the land of the living". The excavation and reclamation of the past and the rescue of self are not the stuff of a fairy tale but, in Schmitt's hands, they produce an illuminating, transformative ever-after.

Kate Schmitt, Ph.D., is not only a writer and poet but a visual artist. It is her painting that graces the cover of Singing Bones. An instructor in nonfiction and creative writing at Florida Atlantic University, Schmitt has published work in such literary periodicals as Birmingham ReviewThe Florida Review, Louisiana Literature, Southern Poetry Review, and Third Coast.

Zone 3 Press, Clarksville, Tennessee, is the book publishing arm of Austin Peay State University; it promotes the work of emerging writers and fosters audiences for contemporary poetry and prose.

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