Poetic intelligence comes in three varieties. There's the self-delighting joie of
Eliot's "words alone" (which, in the Possum's formulation, means something like "words without the
moral assistance of..."). Then there's the intelligence of perception, of seeing into reality to a deeper
extent than is the normal experience. Finally there's the intelligence that understands the rule of paradox as a
(if not the) key principle of our significance-gathering-and-disseminating engines: Czeslaw Milosz was
the great recent exemplar here. Of course, the categories overlap, and they should. You might more usefully think
of them as medieval humors: we are composed of all three, but the balance determines the character that
Judith Skillman is a poet assigned by her Muse to the second category, with considerable shading from the first.
Martin Amis observed that writers with the most élan are those who take possession of the intelligence's
will to penetrate, by which he means to look both into and beyond simultaneously, to (really) notice, remember
sequentially, interpret, synthesize, and judge. This means too that Williams' command, "no ideas but in
things," is under no obligation to pay a compliment either to things or to ideas, but does so to the imagination
that makes of the two a felicity. Consider this:
From the prison of a week awake
I walked, feeling my way
past the silent doves,
the uniforms, the counsel of friends,
birthdays, seasons, and cancers.
Birth in the sheen of ugliness.
Death in the conversation of an old man's hand.
Sidney Bloom, who gestured, upon being told
he'd meet his dead wife in heaven,
Is it enough to "see" what's going on? Can seeing itself, in that wider sense, powered
by concentration and curiosity, produce the "insight" necessary to lead on to a realization of what will
suffice? May a sufficiency consist in no more than this? Skillman's poems argue for the advantages of such a
cultivation. They are descriptions of a usually imperfect domestic world, where it is possible for the poet and
her readers to rise to an appreciation of how enhancements to the ordinary, both positive and negative, become the
new ordinary. In this dynamic, we participate as co-seers. Just how description gives way to vision is a
mystery: surely all the borders that separate the two are in constant flux. Yet it is in following the leads
brought up by the descriptive will (or re-descriptive will: the will to tell back to ourselves as a way of
understanding) that we trigger something we had not met with before. In that "ah-ha!" moment, inadequate
levees, long taken for granted, buckle, and we realize we're on to something. And as in my analogy, it may not be
something good, either, but it is something worth our study. Take this, for instance:
Any person may be regarded as noble
more or less honored depending upon
how far they stand
from the bowl of salt placed like a child's allowance
in the middle of the table.
It was Dickinson who recommended that the truth be told slant. It is certainly tempting,
reading these poems, to argue that slanting favors the figure, if not the accessibility, of the truth anyway.
It's not just a matter of coming up behind and flushing the shy truth from its cover. The "angling"
that these poems accomplish relishes in its own craft and novel point of view. Consider this from "Magpie
One by one my charms grew legs:
quartz elephant, horse, owl, turtle
moving slowly as the earth.
That's when I took my butterfly net
and walked on up the ridge.
I can't tell you what I caught there.
It was rare
but not popular enough to keep.
The slanting tacitly recognizes the provisional and on-off nature of all our ordinary truths. I
don't mean to come off as a relativist, either, in suggesting that truths of the sort that we most frequently
encounter in poems are merely greeting kisses bestowed on facts. But they are something that responds to just
the sort of collaborative appreciation that poems invite, even as poems exist also to generate such truths.
In "Ornamental Plum," Skillman writes that "to be beautiful is the same,/ but not quite, as
forgiven." In that "not quite" is both a terra incognita beckoning the explorer (and
colonizer) and the daylight needed to spy the requisite word opportunities. At the same time that Skillman's
poems perform their watch on the quotidian, the momentary, and the provisional, they also exhibit a welcome
finish. I was reminded of the poetry of Maxine Kumin, whose work also displays these qualities in just about
the same proportion. The title poem, about a high-heeled woman witnessed by children looking through their
blinds as she goes about her affaires de cour by the intermittent flashes of heat lightning, is seen not
only by the dramatic flickers in the humid night, but through the linguistically adjusted lens that allows us to
make of heat lightning an image of a metonymic weather:
So what if she never needed to tell the truth,
which was, after all, nothing more
than a blur, a white lie
leftover from a series of days
above ninety degrees.
Elsewhere, she makes a bitter tea of the frustrations generations of women have felt:
Cursing like Hecuba
I fill the mouths
of machines with clothes
and dishes. My chores
give rhythm and pace
to this life grown cold and childless.
And no man, wearing a carnival hat
and carrot cigarette,
will come from the snow
fearing a wooden instrument,
my French violin strung
with lost desire.
("House of Moon")
While much of her subject matter comes from such familiar topoi as the sputtering of
marriage, the drag of childrenof home life generally, on ambition, on housework, crafts, and gardening
as time-tested schemes of sublimation, she also feels how the larger theme of cultural origins both fashions
and derives from these same domestic parameters. Two poems about her ancestors focus on aspects of Jewish
determinism. In one, her father's recurrent, "cussing" is seen as redeemably Jewish in its blasphemous
vigor, which, as the camera pulls back, also reveals the quizzical humanity (and animality) surrounding the man:
there was never a man as kind
as my father, who said shit.
That word shit he held onto like a lifeboat
in bad weather. A hatless fellow,
a short Jewish man, hissing.
The other poems brings to the occupation of a relative, presumably a grandfather, all the
associations latent in the image of that guilded occupation, tailoring: the steady, manual toil as antidote to
the heavens' empty promises of freedom, the occupational abasement, the remunerative modesty, but also the secret
craft, the innocence of association with the Fates:
The halves of his life,
quartered, come into my own,
and I turn to my cousin,
saying how beautiful it is
to live in the service
of Venus, and we wonder
what the four years
meant to him, all those
fancy men and women
stylish in the face of his dullness,
the scissors eking it out,
the blunt sun rising
in a sky sewn shut.
While earth is a pale reflection of heaven, it can hardly be denied that heaven could even more
profitably go to school to an earthling. This is the message of many poets, as Skillman acknowledges in
This afternoon thirty-three cantos
tell me what Paradise is
an incomprehensible, ecstatic light
piled on asphalt and dirt,
from a pall of ice.
Skillman is expert in resizing the modest to meet the expectations of readers hoping to see the outlines of larger things. Her expansive imagination squares with insight, and in the end both seem aspects of a single unified sensibility. I like the feel of these poems, their commitment to attention and naturalizing of nuance, and reading them with care and a similar commitment to their worked contours, I sense that something of her enterprise is now something of mine. Readers will experience a like return on their investments, if for no other reason than this:
Maybe the only way to tell
is to keep on walking,
talking to God
who leant his name
to every living thing
and then withdrew it,
come winter, leaving
only the objects
lamp and spoonhaloed
Holding the mandolin string
down with your third finger,
ringless. You know the book
by nowwhomever you call on
will have also turned inward.