‘Burnt Bones and Beautiful Butterflies’ is detailed self-portrait wrapped in love, loss

Jerusha Mather/Courtesy

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Jerusha Mather, the poet behind “Burnt Bones and Beautiful Butterflies,” understands the power of simplicity. The poems in her collection are frequently simple, colloquial pieces that appear straightforward, but often lead to a much more detailed painting Mather attempts to construct. This painting is somewhat of a self-portrait, showcasing the challenges — emotional and otherwise — that encompass her life. Mather’s own personal journey with cerebral palsy often comes into play in her poetry, though rarely in a decisive manner. Her influences in Rupi Kaur shine through in these indecisive moments, mirroring the layered complexity that can be found in Kaur’s “Milk and Honey.” 

Like “Milk and Honey,” “Burnt Bones and Beautiful Butterflies” reads with a personal intimacy that is, at times, staggering. Certain poems in the collection feel like diary entries, ones that showcase such raw emotional vulnerability that it feels like they should be hidden behind lock and key. Yet, the beauty in Mather’s poetry is in this willingness to be open. Reading her collection highlights some of the most common, yet commonly unrecognized emotional struggles — and in sharing them, Mather seems to reach out with a hand of reassurance.

“Mirror,” a standout poem from Mather’s book, is a prime example of the simple complexity of her work. Its language isn’t dense with the sort of long, elaborate verbiage that makes initial reading a challenge, instead opting for diction that reads like an internal monologue. The conversational style of the poem lends to its personability, connecting with the reader through its familiarity. It builds upon itself in this way, transforming such familiar language into a deeply complex story.

“You sold my pain with a smile/ You dived in and found me,” she writes. In this conversation with herself, Mather’s portrait becomes clearly unpredictable. She refuses to fall into plain-cut dichotomies and overused tropes by crafting a story that isn’t one-sided. “You sold my pain with a smile” is a line that doesn’t seem to altogether fit with the optimistic tone of the poem, introducing a layer of self-doubt. Her poetry is honest in this sense, accessing a vulnerability that clearly defines Mather as a writer who isn’t afraid to express the real, the raw and the ugly.

This layer of truth spreads throughout “Burnt Bones and Beautiful Butterflies,” also arising in the physical challenges Mather seems to portray dealing with her cerebral palsy. In her poetry, she utilizes human “bodies” as reflections of emotional turmoil and struggle, introducing a duality between physical disability and emotional strain. In her poem “Quiet,” Mather longs, “Love/ You don’t say a word/ You let silent air/ Penetrate through/ My body.” Love, a running theme throughout the collection, often appears to mask deeper challenges with personal acceptance — and Mather implements language of the physical body to achieve this.

In “Quiet” specifically, the body develops to become a symbol of hollowness, yet it also seems to parallel a feeling of emptiness Mather is trying to convey in a physical sense. This duality is both nuanced and concise, widely indicative of the type of poetry on display in “Burnt Bones.” The work’s major themes often ride along these lines of love and loss, yet continually push the boundaries of Mather’s capability as a poet. Her self-awareness connects effectively thanks in large part to her fearless vulnerability, which not only emphasizes her emotional expression, but also validates a discomfort and uncertainty with one’s own self.

The work done in “Burnt Bones” is crucial for this very reason. Poems such as “Tears” and “Embrace” go beyond simple melancholy, exploring intense loss, loneliness and depression. Through these works, Mather validates the raw existence and normality of these struggles; in their unfiltered expression, readers experiencing these feelings are given an opportunity to be understood and seen. Though “Burnt Bones and Beautiful Butterflies” is a self-portrait of Mather in many respects, it becomes clear that her collection is also the kind of portrait that many people can feel represented in, and this fact will likely make Mather’s work as timeless as the confrontations it presents. 

Contact Ryan Garay at [email protected].