The Bones Are There features a woolly mammoth, an elephant bird, a short-tailed hopping-mouse, and a dodo, each extinct at the hands of humans. In Kate Sutherland’s fourth book of poems, she asks us to reflect on our colonial past and our desire to explore and destroy.
The Bones Are There Kate Sutherland Book*hug Press, 2020 89 pages ISBN: 978-1771666251 $18.00 Reviewed by Brennan O’Toole
The book is divided into three parts: Beasts of the Sea, The Bones are There, and Familiar. Using excerpts from journals, ship’s logs, textbooks, and manuals, Sutherland pieces together a mosaic that tells a cautionary tale for future explorers. Each section reads like one long poem, whole poems becoming stanzas. The poetic language of the book does not come from the voices of these found documents, but from Sutherland’s ability to tell the story of human hubris. Each poem builds on the last to read like a novel as much as a collection. Beasts of the Sea follows Russian sailors on their arduous journey to North America as they describe everything from a bird’s feathers, to death by scurvy, to long days at sea. These are real voices from hundreds of years ago, but they feel eerily similar to our own. While language and ideas may have changed, the human will to understand persists. The journals can be both disorienting and clear, emulating both rough and calm days at sea. In The Bones are There, the pages are backlit with the faded names of extinct animals, while the poems chart their physical characteristics and explore the effects humans have had on the species. Sutherland details their systemic slaughter, along with the payouts hunters receive for the kill, itemizing the destruction of people, animals, and land for colonial profit. “We authorized the superintendent to give the following rewards for the / destruction of Noxious animals:
For every Male Hyena 5/For every Female Hyena with or without young 7/Half the above prices for Male and Female Devils and Wild Dogs.” Some creatures are recognizable by name, but the majority are not. Most are paired with the names of their native habitat: American cheetah, Jamaican long-tongued bat, the Christmas Island musk shrew. The hunters and traders follow these orders to survive, exploited by the same men who own the fur companies and the zoos. It makes you wonder what the ocean might look like if sea cows still floated in our waters. One section departs slightly from the form of the first two to tell the stories of women in the 14th and 15th century executed as witches. The women in these stories search for potions to solve their problems, and send white cats to destroy their neighbour’s cattle, making clear colonialism butchers more than animals. These women were not helped by their communities, but ostracized and executed. They are spliced between scientific descriptions of extinct frogs and toads (a symbol for witchcraft) and recipes for concoctions designed to cure. Sutherland was born in Scotland and emigrated to Canada as a child. She studied at the University of Saskatchewan, and then Harvard Law. Her stories and poems appear in Best Canadian Poetry and Best American Experimental Writing. She teaches at Osgoode Hall. The Bones Are There breathes life into the dead. Sutherland reimagines our world as if our ancestors had been less careless and blood-thirsty, less intent on their own aggrandizement. It is a world you need to see.