Thursday, October 21, 2004

NEW! Review of Skanky Possum #9

Skanky Possum #9.

Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger

The most successful poems in Skanky Possum #9 (Autumn/Winter 2003-2004) do not grab you by the collar and pin you to the wall behind your reading chair, nor do they suicide-bomb you with political accusations or scatological evocations. Rather, they insinuate, as does Andy Schuck’s “Fence”:

to wait and wire
as in debate:
jumping and shifting
to show intruders in
to avoid answering
before one repairs
a boundary

That’s the beginning. Perhaps I can be forgiven if I see a hint of a criticism of “Mending Wall”--Frost (or his narrator) doesn’t answer any questions himself, does he, before he goes off repairing the wall? He just does it, with the help of his neighbor, and only later criticizes that neighbor. But if “good fences make good neighbors” is such a foolish saying, says Schuck’s poem in response, why not question the boundary before one goes off to repair it? “Fence” continues, itself straddling multiple possible meanings, cataloging the roles a fence can play, until ending with an enlightening compromise:

to jump over
shifting ground
to restrict
one commits

The fence, that is, is its own division, setting itself apart from the surrounding landscape so that our limited ability to “commit” might have a limited and more realistic realm of operations.

Avery E.D. Burns’s Ambulatory Refrains is also excerpted in this issue, and the title of his collection is appropriate for these deceptively simple, epigrammatic poems, balancing irony and contradiction in a way reminiscent of A.R. Ammons’s shorter works. “I want what you want / you want what I want,” begins the first, a stalemate which is both gridlock and compromise, and the last, in its entirety, reads as follows:

my heart is wild
and I must rest

pebbles sound

within searing

my heart is wild
and I must rest

This poem is not narrative, but momental--almost a palindrome, but at any rate something that should be read (if it were possible) all at once, without regard to the relationships between pebbles and waves, within and without, wildness and rest: is the one cause of or caused by the other? Burns does not tell us, and he has faith enough in his few lines to grant us that uncertainty. This, of course, means that his poems dance dangerously close to the edge of sentimentality, as in the “house in a heart” of the second poem in the series, like a “house on the hill”: with all modern conveniences, but “yours for a song.”

The third poem here is most arresting and thought-provoking, starting with a ringing image (“coins spilt / on a table // the feel for one / thing over another / reels”) and suggesting, albeit in a tone almost too oblique to be called suggestion, that there is a universe of emotional connections that can be understood in terms of “barter”: “... what shifts / from shells / & drilled stones / to hearts / strung on a rope / of sand.” If it’s not clear whose hearts these are, and why they’re on a rope, maybe that’s the point: the jingling of coins and the speed of barter can overwhelm our “feel for one thing over another.”

It is mostly the poems by Burns which save this issue from its weakest poems, tired attempts to epater les bourgeois or strenuously contrived, self-righteous political commentary. It’s the poet’s paradox: when so much is going on and life and death seem to hang in the balance, the fewest words carefully placed can work wondrous simplicity.

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