by Jeffrey Skinner
174 pages—Salmon Poetry, February 2017
Review by Al Maginnes
If Jeffrey Skinner were a basketball player, he would be the point guard who sees the whole court and knows the best possibilities for scoring from any spot on the floor. He would also be the gym rat who works endlessly in the gym, practicing free throws and jumpers until the ball is an extension of his hand. Jeffrey Skinner’s volume of new and selected poems, I Offer This Container, reveals a poet always in search of new strategies and ways to put the poem across. While Skinner, who is also a playwright and the author of the delightful The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets, a book that hovers somewhere between memoir and handbook and is one of the most delightful books about poetry and the tribe that writes it, is not the most prolific of poets, he has never settled long into a style or mode of writing poems.
From his first book, Late Stars, published in 1985, to now, Skinner’s work has always ranged between narration and meditation. In his early poems, the two modes seemed to be kept apart from one another, like neighbors in an apartment building who nod in passing but never speak. The coming of age poem “Uncle Joe,” from A Guide to Forgetting (1988), demonstrates the fairly straightforward style of Skinner’s early narratives. A young boy goes shooting with his uncle and the kick of the shotgun gashes his forehead. When he cries while his wound is bandaged, the wife of the farmer whose land they are on tells him, “If this is the worst thing that ever happens to you, you’ll be the luckiest little man on earth.” At the end of the poem, the speaker is left wondering “What was the rest / of my life that she could say a thing so calmly?”
In later poems, such as “Glaciology,” the title poem of the last book represented in I Offer This Container, meditation, prayer, and narrative intertwine freely. In the first section of the poem, the speaker meets John, who may be a friend or a twin brother, for a run. “Since we had been / together in the womb it was not always necessary to speak / to know the other’s thoughts.” Indeed, it seems to be speaking that steers the poet and his companion into hazardous territory. When they stop for breakfast, the speaker asks where John has been all these years, which leads to John explaining the patience required of a glaciologist. This leads to a testy exchange when the speaker realizes, “we may have to fight / that I would have to kill John, or he would kill me.”
At this point, a page into the poem, the reader wonders if John is real or a doppelganger or a friend or sibling who has passed. Skinner never makes the relationship clear and, in fact, introduces a third party, Cindy, a woman John claims to have lost in a pool game. Here the poem takes a meditative turn as Skinner ruminates:
to help me [.]
It is passages like this that take the poem into areas beyond the simply narrative, and Skinner is wise enough a poet not to give the game away. The narrative of the speaker, John, and Cindy is interwoven with facts about glaciers, meditations about mortality, and the brevity of our existence (“I said John, how can we be almost done with this life?”), especially when stacked up against the seeming endlessness of glaciers.
The poem asks blessings for John, for Cindy, for all of creation in rhyming quatrains reminiscent of Herbert:
But this is not the end of the poem. “I leave my mind,” is Skinner’s last line, which can be read as a declaration of transcendence or a disavowal of resolutions that wrap up difficult questions or situations too neatly. Skinner understands that human stories never resolve themselves neatly, which might be one reason we write elegies. They are the one chance we have to put paid to the life of any character, whether drawn from life or wholly imagined.
There was a ten-year break between Skinner’s third book, The Company of Heaven (1992), and his fourth, Gender Studies (2002). This might be due to writer’s block, to Skinner’s focus on playwriting, or simply to the shortsightedness of publishers. But some welcome changes announce themselves in Gender Studies. A sense of humor, something sorely missing in much American poetry, asserts itself in “John Ashbery,” another long poem. Indeed, there are sly winks of humor in many of the poems here, including the title poem, which commences, “Now that it’s finally a good time to be a woman, / I’m a man.” The poem then moves into areas that are less funny, the vision of an ex-wife reappearing demanding to know why he waited until she left to stop drinking, and the poet expresses some gratitude that his daughters will soon be gone, embarked on their adult lives “so that what I don’t know can’t hurt you.”
Someday a scholar much more enlightened than I will do a history of the various uses the prose poem has been put to since gaining favor again sometime in the late 20th century. In Gender Studies, Skinner’s use of the prose poem allows him to loosen his narratives and continue with the strain of humor that had already begun to evidence itself in his work. A striking note of surrealism begins to introduce itself as well in this volume. The poem “Black Olives” begins, “I take my father for a job interview with Jesus.” “Theory of Heaven” begins, “Theory of heaven in which residents are permitted to time-travel as tourists among the living, stopping whenever they like[.]” There is a handful of engaging prose poems about the poet’s father in which the father is variously seen as firewood, an engine part, and a railroad conductor. Because the father is placed in such impossible situations, the writer is free of the need to make the grand emotional claim that besets most make poets when writing about their fathers.
If this had been simply a selected volume, I would have no reservations about this book. To be fair, the “new” part of new and selected presents a conundrum. If one is in the middle of a bunch of poems that seem to fit together and might form the core of a new book, does he or she want to pull those poems out. It seems unlikely. So, it is unsurprising when the new poems in such a volume don’t measure up to the “old” poems. Several of the new poems do not measure up in craft or emotional integrity to what’s already come. Salmon was wise to place these poems at the back of the book. And who knows? The very poems I find little use for today might be the poems pointing a new way for Skinner, who has proved that he is one of the deftest poets working today.
Readers who pick up this volume—and I recommend that everyone reading this do so—do not have to wait to see where Skinner is going. Chance Divine, which won last year’s Field Poetry Prize, was published this spring and is available for purchase. I look forward to seeing where this most unpredictable of poets will take us next.
Al Maginnes is the author of seven full length collections, most recently The Next Place and Music From Small Towns, winner of the Jacar Press poetry competition, as well as four chapbooks. He lives with his family in Raleigh, North Carolina and teaches at Wake Technical Community College. He is a member of the editorial board for the online journal One and a member of Liberty Circus, a music and spoken word collective devoted to raising funds for social justice.