Reviewed by Zackary Sholem Berger
“Before you go any further, read the instructions,” writes Catherine Kasper in “Manual Instruction,” the poem that feels like the true introduction of Skanky Possum #10. Kasper has three pieces in this issue, each with a title in near-bureaucratese that assumes additional dimensions in her hands--the other two are called “Border Declarations” and “Citizens’ Leaflets.” What are the instructions presented here, in a no-nonsense second person? It’s something of a tease, because what we are given are actually pre-instructions: “They have been composed with you / specifically in mind”; “They are presented in a neat, linear fashion / effortless to follow; there is a visual image / so that your emulation can be nothing less than / exemplary. In some cases, everything / cannot be anticipated.” The last lines are a step into concreteness:
It has been assumed, of course,
that you’ve purified the water, that you possess a newly-
charged generator, that you have previous
experience striking a match.
But since everything that’s been said up to now about the “instructions” centers on the ability of the recipient to understand and fulfill them, one might think that the water, generator, and struck match are as much representations of mental or psychological states as indicators of coming adventure.
The second person is a tricky form of address, as anyone knows who’s tried to have a simple conversation without putting their foot in their mouth. This poem doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls. There is a sameness and unclarity about the diction. (“They understand you are / important, busy, and so they have been written / to make your life easy.” Are the two “they”s referring to the instructions themselves, or is the first gesturing toward some authority in the wings? This is a confusing repetition.) When it’s said of the instructions, at one point, that “they jump right to the specifics / and provide the essentials without cluttering / your household, or increasing your consumption,” the reader is confused by the last word’s sudden broadening of reference. (What is “increasing one’s consumption,” and--assuming what’s meant is the purchase of goods and not the virulence of tuberculosis--are we meant to understand it as a good or bad thing?) These criticisms are worth making because the poem is worth reading, the “pre-instructions” of sufficient suggestiveness that the reader wonders what the instructions themselves might be.
As with the previous issue, this issue of Skanky Possum includes many different kinds of work: both studied prose poem and seemingly tossed-off bon mot, love poetry sensitive to every gust of wind and broad parody. It’s not clear whether these juxtapositions were planned or unplanned, whether there’s any unifying theme for the issue aside from a generous crop of poetry from different sizes and species. In any case, there’s another point of similarity with the last issue: the best poems are the simplest--whether that’s defined by number of lines or the paucity of formal, theoretical, jokey, or political infrastructure. Or, for that matter, by the ability of the poet to convince the reader of such simplicity, while hiding the true complexities underneath the surface.
Thus Jerome Rothenberg’s “The Burning Babe,” in two parts, can indeed be read as a detailed contemporary reworking of Robert Southwell’s well-known nativity poem. But it’s just as possible, and even more immediately worthwhile, to be naively introduced (in the first part) to the “babe / is infant boy / he sings,” who “flies into your dream,” a babe with whom we can “somehow muddle through,” and whose own hand, mystically and connectedly, in response to our own hand’s being raised with the threat of violence, “bursts / like worlds emerging / into flame.” With that introduction, the second part (a skeletonizing, or slimming-down, of the Southwell depiction), leading to a universal tragedy in its conclusion--
a babe dissolved
like molten iron
into a pit
where others fall
bathed with blood
--can plausibly (or perhaps this is wishful thinking on the part of this reviewer, always seeking consolation), in light of the first part, be re-interpreted as a possibility for redemption: the babe’s sympathetic fire-of-compassion is present and possible even in the mass grave.
The simplicity of Thomas Fink’s “Frigate” is of the cunning variety: it characterizes the average reader’s cast of mind while cajoling or seducing its own reader into that very mentality--or a substantially altered version of it. “There’s something new / and learned // before you read / the page / every time you // meet a picture,” the poem begins, with less than perfect clarity. But the image at its close brings things into focus: “We hear ‘lunch’ / and picture / the yellow word, / bubble-lettered, / with sandwich, / with salad / next to it.” Why “lunch” is a yellow word, and bubble-lettered: well, that’s the difference between the canonical “reading of the page” and what the poem is allowed to sneak in around the edges. (And what sort of frigate will the reader of this poem see in her mind’s eye, steaming away from this page of poetry?)
The last poems I’d like to mention are those motivated by the whimsical and personable intelligence of Duncan McNaughton. The simplicity I’ve been talking about here is best paired with an allergy to cliche, the use of sensory realia in the service of the level gaze. The accidents of love and sex are here evidenced by single objects--“a pair of gold shoes,” the ‘araq that’s “good, remorseless”; “the hem of her slip”--but in combination with psychological sensitivity (“the relation / between magnetism and electricity / is it a happy union, or is it torment?”) and a nimble lightness which enables him to leap from culture to culture, from Arabia to Pan to J-Lo, in the space of one poem (“An immunity”). He’s a guy I’d like to know more about, and figure out the connections personal and poetic between the modest-but-inviting dedications (“to the uncertain,” reads one of them) at the end of these poems.