The best way to approach Skin Shift, Matthew Hittinger’s debut full-length poetry collection, is as a cosmogony—the mercurial origin story of how the poet came to be who he is—meant to instruct as much as dazzle. I dare not suggest these poems, which are as varied in content as they are in form, are pedantic; quite the contrary, Hittinger manages to maintain a poignant distance from even the most biographical poems, presenting us with images and sounds that are by turns mundane and fantastic, reflecting the poet’s own view of the world. These poems are instructional the way Whitman can be instructional. Hittinger is a poet of constellations and visions, atomic and multicellular, historical, tongue-in-cheek, and reverent, and Skin Shift, perhaps one of the largest (by physical dimensions) books of poetry you’re likely to come across, puts Hittinger’s full range of talents on display.
As befitting the first movements of an origin story, Skin Shift opens with the apocryphally titled “Orange Colored Sky,” a poem that serves to introduce some of the poet’s obsessions, namely with femininity, mythology and childhood. Hittinger writes:
Hittinger sees Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, as a model for his own blossoming femininity, and thus goes about mimicking Lynda Carter, who portrayed the character on television, with the accoutrements of his childhood bedroom. All this interest in Wonder Woman stems from the grace and ease of her metamorphosis from normal woman to super woman—the speaker of the poem craves the same transformation, both for its ease and for the final product. Superheroes are considered to be the modern equivalent to mythological figures in some circles, and Wonder Woman, whose mythology is indelibly linked with the Greek Pantheon (she’s the daughter of Hippolyta in the comics) seems like an appropriate to guide the speaker’s nascent queer urges from a “leaning toward” into a “learning toward.”
If the young speaker of Hittinger’s first poem wants to transform into Wonder Woman, to harness her power, it comes as no surprise that one of the poet’s chief modes of writing is through persona. This tendency to dive into the skins of others helps us to parse the book’s title—Skin Shift isn’t simply about transforming from human to superhuman, it’s about shifting into another flesh altogether. The movement can be horizontal as much as it is vertical. Some of the personas adopted by Hittinger’s speakers include an astronomer, an ornithologist, a geologist, and an alchemist. The poet enjoys stepping into their skins because they offer both a specialized eye and subject, and a way to “Laugh. Clear the jam. [And] Start again.” Other poems in the book—such as “Circe’s Letterpress” and “Samson in Reverse”—collapse the distance between biography and persona, mimicking some of the impetus behind Skin Shift’s opening poem, but no other poems collapse this distance as effectively as the poems in the book’s third section, “Narcissus Resists.”
“Narcissus Resists” is split up into five smaller sections, each headed by five “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” poems, and containing three poems that each start with the letter “C,” the lone exception being the fifth “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” poem, which ends the third section. It seems to be no accident that all the poems in this section are fourteen lines long, though they do not bare the qualities (meter, rhyme) of traditional sonnets, they seem inflected (or provoked) by the spirit of the “sonnets” in Henri Cole’s Middle Earth and Blackbird and Wolf. These “sonnets” are far more naked in their content than Cole’s, recounting the troubled adventures of Hittinger’s Narcissus, a young gay man who idolizes a Madonna-like pop star and hosts an online strip show. These poems cleverly repurpose both pop culture and the myth of the Greek figure, exploring the way shifting from one skin into another can be destructive. In “Metamorphosis of Narcissus IV,” Hittinger explores the collective ire of Narcissus’s spurned suitor:
Transformation isn’t a key to self-discovery for Narcissus, it’s a way of avoiding himself and the havoc he’s wreaked, intentional or not, in the lives of others. Narcissus wants to escape, his guilt manifesting in this ghost dog image, but cannot because Narcissus, much as he might resist, only sees himself. The poems in Skin Shift do not shy away from the implications of shifting from one’s skin to another—they do not indulge in the fantasy such role change can bring, but also in the ways shifting can feed into revising history, denying the reality that the self imposes, or as a means for coping with trauma. Hittinger’s poems are ambitious in their scope and in how artfully they balance raw emotional language with thoughtfully constructed conceits. Ultimately its hard not to find another skin for yourself nestled somewhere between these pages.