Poetry Review: Isabella J. Mansfield’s The Hollows of Bone

Kat Giordano

Truthfully, I’ve always found my literary tastes kind of hard to pin down. I am writing this with full awareness that this not only makes me an extremely picky reader, but also perhaps a shitty reviewer. But it’s the truth. I’m not impressed by many of the things that I read. But if there are two things that consistently interest me in poetry, they are vulnerability and tension. Isabella J. Mansfield’s debut full-length poetry collection The Hollows of Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2019) contains both in droves.

Mansfield’s poetry revolves around a set of relatively commonplace themes – motherhood, objectification, body image issues, and burnout, to name a few.

But the vulnerability with which she handles these topics brings to light some interesting contradictions.

How the demands of being a mothers and caregiver to others only amplifies her feelings of isolation, how we seem to need more from others the more we ourselves are needed.

In poems like “She” and “#momlife,” Mansfield directly addresses not only the alienation that comes from giving so much of ourselves to others but also the ways in which the guilt of feeling this way further erodes our ability to ask for the things we want: “She feels alone and feels bad about that because she’s not alone. She is sorry for leaving you alone so she can be alone. She is aware of the contradiction. She is sorry about that too…

Nowhere is this theme of duality more prominent than in the poem “Crisis Point,” where Mansfield illustrates the pain and exhaustion that lies behind an outward façade of health and progress, such as in the closing lines “you will hear them rattle: / ‘She’s never looked better.’”

While I don’t have personal experience with many of the specific themes explored in this book, such as motherhood or the difficulty of caring for one’s aging parents, I see myself in Mansfield’s desperation. Reading this book, I reflected upon the many instances in which I gave endlessly of myself and then felt guilty for not being completely fulfilled in the process. Caring for others, while certainly not a useless pursuit by any means, allows us to externalize our own needs.

We build identities around pleasing others, hoping to suffocate our own desire for compassion.

Only it doesn’t work. We resurface, feeling even emptier than before, and then we berate ourselves for not being selfless enough to stop longing for the same effort from those around us. We don’t know how to fix this, so we bury ourselves once again in the problems and demands of others and try to forget what we wish they would do for us.

But The Hollows of Bone doesn’t allow us to forget the price of a life lived entirely in the service of others, or the emptiness that so often lurks beneath an outward picture of fulfillment. By immersing us in that pain, Mansfield’s poems force us to confront the parts of ourselves that go undernourished and neglected in favor of others’ happiness. They hold a mic up to our repressed desires and encourage us to listen. The choice to obey is still ours, of course, but we can no longer ignore what awaits us if we don’t.

My favorite poems: “Breaking Point,” “Local Woman Accidentally Terrorizes Target Customers With Noisy Clearance Halloween Decor That Won’t Turn Off,” “To The Girl Giving Head In The Back of the Parking Lot”

You’ll like this book if: “Inspiration porn” makes you nauseous, you appreciate the beauty in others but apply different rules to yourself, you often stay up way too late talking a close friend off a ledge and then cry yourself to sleep.

Kat Giordano is a poet (1%) and massive millennial crybaby (99%) from Pennsylvania. She co-edits Philosophical Idiot and works for a law firm somehow. She is also the author of many highly embarrassing social media meltdowns. Her poems have appeared in OcculumGhost City ReviewAwkward MermaidThe Cincinnati ReviewRat’s Ass Review, and others. Her debut full-length poetry collection, The Poet Confronts Bukowski’s Ghost, is available now.  

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