Reviewer: Ann Wehrman
“And, by the way, don’t worry about what a poem means. Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen. Meaning lives there in a field of powerful understanding before it ever makes its way to words or explanations.” —Joy Harjo
What does it take to make magic, to create a functional potion, a sacrament, an incantation—or perhaps a powerful work of art? Any wizard worth his or her salt knows that casting an effective spell requires certain ingredients; no substitutions, no cheaper goods, will work. An olive will never replace eye of newt, it simply will not suffice. In her 2015 collection, House of Burnt Offerings, Judith Skillman creates wizardry with words, and as Skillman is a highly skilled poet, not just any words will do. Skillman bends and breaks standard syntax and meaning as she employs impressive vocabulary, narrative, and imagery for her own purposes, mining the hidden regions of dreams, myth, culture, and memory. She mixes a sliver of pain, a kernel of tenderness, a twist of satire, perversity, and bitterness, creating from it all a potent sauce of raw truth.
“Wand” celebrates the beauty of imperfection, the bittersweet sadness of unstoppable age and brutal poverty. “If there’s a synonym for magic/ it lies not in the wand/ but at the bud-bent end,” Skillman writes, invoking the feminine body and power, perhaps. The poem continues:
The body’s a spring,
Better to have been born poor
Better to have been made
saved the wrapper to smear a pan
Old moon-faced clock
where each day began
over white bra and underwear,
every season. Lavender in a vase
In this comparatively gentle and forthright poem, Skillman tears at the heart of the reader, demanding that she encounter the realities of inevitable old age, ruin, loneliness, and decay; that she recognize, in loved ones and relatives, as well as herself, the process of growing older.
Serious literature, in contrast to popular writing, employs only the most vivid, powerful, and exact diction possible. This is probably even more crucial with poetry than prose, as poetry compresses language, building and interweaving imagery to convey cloaked and oblique meanings. In poetry, every word counts for double or triple points, and every word must be the right one, the most precise and illustrative choice. Skillman proves her virtuosity in “Mis En Abyme”:
As in the fractal—take
Who was Father with his viola,
Even the reader with little or no scientific or musical background senses the importance of Skillman’s carefully chosen diction, and those with such training will appreciate her references even more fully.
As a rule (though rules can and will be broken), poetry does not spell out and logically support its assertions; instead, it encodes them in images ranging from varicolored stardust to obsidian mud, as a day at the ocean, a live birth, or a night of lovemaking exposes one to a full spectrum of emotion—nature does not hold back, and poetry, as an art, resembles nature in its color, vision, and sublimity. When one takes a walk in the forest, one notes sensory impressions in a 360-degree, multidimensional, holistic range, the walk leaving a powerful and memorable imprint, though one might have trouble explaining the experience afterward, at least in logical, summative terms.
Crafting and weaving her poems, Skillman deftly uses both literal allusions and juxtapositions of the mundane with the bizarre, evoking a palpable sense of oppression, the reader often experiencing a visceral disgust or reactive horror. Alternately, one wonders if the speaker is deliberately twisting and encoding her words, phrases, and images specifically in order to hide within the poems from the oppressor (thereby creating a meta-effect), who in the poems appears often as the father and sometimes as cruel society, encroaching old age, dirt, decay, and even frightening animals and spirits. The poems in House of Burnt Offerings range in style and allusion from personal and family narrative (“Father, Figure”) to pieces that tackle political, religious, and mythic themes (“The Green Hour,” “Wifery”), though all share a viewpoint that is abstracted, reflected “through a glass, darkly.”
Skillman’s writing is complex and shrouded, driven by a speaker or speakers determinedly grasping for life or at least survival despite dread of a still-living and often undetectable adversary. In this way, House of Burnt Offerings invokes a vivid, contained, and upsetting poetic world that a reader agrees to enter, similar to the House of Mirrors at the small-town carnival. Perhaps the carnival goer should have noticed the blackened tooth, the greasy shoes, the leer of the attendant, and decided against the dark thrill of the House. For the reader unafraid to walk in the dark, even through the forest, Skillman’s poems will provide stimulus for valuable reflection and, perhaps, deeper understanding.