Issue 41
November 2008

David Rigsbee


Ross Gay

C. Wade Bentley This marks an author's first online publication
Bonnie Bolling
Gabriel DeCrease
Pamela Hart
Roger Jones
Robert Lesman This marks an author's first online publication
James B. Nicola
Chad Prevost
Mark Prudowsky
Cassandra Robison
Michael Shorb
Avery Slater This marks an author's first online publication
Josh Stewart
Elisabeth von Uhl This marks an author's first online publication
Muriel Harris
This marks an author's first online publication

Paul Blaney This marks an author's first online publication
Neil Grimmett

David Rigsbee
reviews All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems by Linda Gregg

David Rigsbee

reviews Heat Lightning: New and Selected Poems 1986—2006 by Judith Skillman


David Rigsbee David Rigsbee is the author of six collections, most recently Cloud Journal (Turning Point, 2008). and Two Estates forthcoming from Cherry Grove Collections in 2009. He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.

Heat Lightning: New & Selected Poems 1986–2006 by Judith Skillman


Heat Lightning: New and Selected Poems 1986–2006
by Judith Skillman
152 pages
Silverfish Review Press, 2006

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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 results.

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,
enough already.

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 Eyes":

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.
                          ("Heat Lightning")

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 children—of 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.
                          ("Sad Breed")

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.
                          ("The Cutter")

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 "Dante's Nest":

This afternoon thirty-three cantos
tell me what Paradise is—
an incomprehensible, ecstatic light
piled on asphalt and dirt,
dim reflections
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 spoon—haloed
Holding the mandolin string
down with your third finger,
ringless. You know the book
by now—whomever you call on
will have also turned inward.




David Rigsbee: Book Review
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