River Teeth Revisted

Allusion as Structure in Sean Ironman’s “And I Will Give You As Many Roast Bones As You Need”

March 8, 2020

By Jonah James

“My fifty-pound boxer, Jade, snaps savagely. I do not know how she got by our mother. Whenever we cry, yell, moan, or make any sound not described as perfectly calm, even when playing, she rushes to our side, growls angry and deep.”

~“And I Will Give You As Many Roast Bones As You Need” by Sean Ironman (River Teeth 21.1, Fall 2019)

Sean Ironman’s essay, “And I Will Give You As Many Roast Bones As You Need”** (River Teeth, Volume 21, Number 1, Fall 2019)—is the longest essay in River Teeth 21.1, and in the same way its name winds and wends, so too does the essay, bridging memory and history and theory together to form one long road that leads its way through the many ways humans and dogs have loved each other and lived together over the years. One aspect of Ironman’s writing that brings his essay together in a breathtaking way is his masterful use of allusion. “And I Will Give You As Many Roast Bones As You Need” (“Roast Bones”) receives its title from a story by Rudyard Kipling. Ironman writes:

In Kipling’s story “The Cat That Walked by Himself,” dog is domesticated by a deal. “The Woman said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, help my Man to hunt through the day and guard this Cave at night, and I will give you as many roast bones as you need.'” To me, this is a trick. Hunt for us all day. Protect our home all night. And we will feed you as many scraps as you need, not even want.(Ironman 20)

Some students, myself included, may struggle to identify allusions. They may be under the impression that allusions have to be small and widely applicable (e.g., Romeo and Juliet or Harry Potter).  “Roast Bones” is a perfect way to reveal the many facets and applications of allusion in writing, because not only does Ironman repeatedly reference and return to Kipling’s story, but he alludes to dozens of other works as well and even uses allusions in the form of epigraphs to create white space and structure.

Ironman’s essay has—if I counted correctly—forty-one different sections, separated by white space. Eight of these are epitaphs, spliced throughout the essay. Several other sections are small, comprised of just a few sentences, describing a story or fact or piece of history; see, for example, the aforementioned Kipling story or a section featuring Plato’s The Symposium:

In Plato’s The Symposium, Aristophanes recounts love’s origin. We once had, he says, double bodies with four arms and four legs. Capable of anything and arrogant because of it, we tried to scale Mount Olympus. With lightning, Zeus halved us. “‘And if they continue to be insolent and will not be quiet,’ said Zeus, ‘I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.'” Now, we search for our other half. When found, we will cling to this half and, “longing to grow into one,” never let go. (15)

Ironman’s allusions are spread throughout time. By intermingling Plato with Kipling and Robert Frost and Bruce Springsteen and Sigmund Freud, he can utilize them all individually and also collectively. They blend together to create a solidified element in his essay, one that assists and accompanies his own narrative of his childhood and life with Hankelford, his seizure-afflicted boxer.

If “Roast Bones” is a braided essay, it is a many-stranded one. We begin with his own narrative, a two-paragraph section that introduces many of the themes at play: his father, masculinity, violence, a dog’s love, the anguish of knowing someone’s pain but being unable to quench it. Next, Ironman delves into the history of man and dog and their side-by-side relationship: “Before we milked cow, herded goat, raised pig, an eight-year-old boy walked beside his dogwolf in France’s Chauvet Cave” (10). Then, Ironman gives us a pause with a Kipling quote, before jumping back into narrative. The essay traverses its course back and forth between these three strands: narrative, history or theory, quote or allusion. It is rarely in the same order, and there are of course smaller deviations as well: Ironman also divides between the past and the present, between Jade and Hankelford. (I would continue the metaphor and call these split ends, but that sounds negative when in fact it’s masterfully done). His allusions are constant and assist in the structure of the essay. He uses the epigraphs almost as blocks of white space, spaces to breathe and deepen our shared perspective on love and the relationship between man and dog.

And beyond these larger, explicit allusions, Ironman also uses many smaller, localized allusions. For example, in describing his childhood and relationship with his father, he mentions G.I. Joes, Cub Scouts, Champs Sports Bar, and Texas Hold’em—all evoking particular images and expectations of masculinity. If teaching “Roast Bones,” it would be interesting to see which allusions the students pick up on most strongly, and which stood out to them—Zack Braff versus Sigmund Freud, for example. It would also be interesting to discuss the various ways of creating allusion—small references, larger analyses, repeated patterns, and more—and what it means to remix or re-develop a thought that has already been written.

Ironman ends with a question that has been building throughout the essay.  “Hankelford goes to take off through the open gate, but I call his name, and he stops and looks at me, as though wanting an explanation for why his friend must leave,” Ironman writes. “I tell him that all will be okay, and I wonder if he trusts me, and if he should” (31). This is not a question that Ironman can answer, nor one that he expects his audience to answer, but one that he carefully weighed and measured for eight thousand words. More than writing about something, it seems that “Roast Bones” is about writing to something, perhaps to this question with no real answer. There’s a power in Ironman’s admission of uncertainty, and yet still a longing to examine and re-examine the essay to discover one more clue, one more allusion, that might reveal the answer.

Ironman’s “And I Will Give You As Many Roast Bones As You Need” alludes to Rudyard Kipling’s story several times throughout the text, using epigraphs, direct references, and more. Write an essay built around another work, such as a poem, theory, poem, or otherwise. As Ironman did, build your structure around the allusions. Refer to the work at least three times throughout the essay, being mindful of white space and segmentation—and through it all, honor the allusion. Let it wend its way through your writing until they flow seamlessly together.


Jonah James is an undergraduate intern at River Teeth. He is a senior at Ball State University and studies Rhetoric and Writing.

Editor’s Note: We’re thrilled to have Jonah’s post kick off our new River Teeth Revisited series. Not only does Jonah’s sharp analysis of allusion shine a light on Sean Ironman’s “And I Will Give You As Many Roast Bones As You Need,” Jonah has also served with grace, talent, and innovation on the inaugural River Teeth Learning Lab team. If you scored a River Teeth laptop sticker or enjoyed a post on our new Instagram account, thank Jonah. Also, the River Teeth team wants to congratulate Jonah on his upcoming graduation: we’re so grateful for your good work, Jonah, and we wish you an extraordinary life full of good essays.


**Check with your library to find out if you have an institutional subscription to ProjectMUSE, and thus, River Teeth’s archives.


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River Teeth accepts submissions of creative nonfiction through Submittable from September 1 to December 1 and January 1 to April 1.