I owe Jeffrey Skinner an apology, in the same way that I owe most older heterosexual white male poets an apology. I’m sorry that I never give your poetry the time of day, or even a chance to breathe. It isn’t you, so much, it’s just that an institutionalized education has meant that huge swathes of my reading time have been dedicated to the issues of a very narrow canon to whom I rarely find myself identifying. This means that on days when my reading is by my choice, I have a tendency to steer clear, and look for something… other. If I’d been allowed to stick to my prejudice, however, I would have missed out on a well-crafted, lyrical treat.
Glaciology benefits from being given an opportunity to stretch its legs and announce itself to you. On first read, there were moments to roll your eyes to, and there are poems that play with ideas the same way a hipster toys with a typewriter – yes, the process might be fun, but the results aren’t startling and the revelations aren’t new. There is always a woman, she is always an awakening, and why is it that no matter the age, grown adult contemporary poets are obsessed with puberty? However, once you get over this and stop letting parts speak for the whole, Glaciology offers up a song that is honest, reflective and deeply moving. Given the opportunity to be equal to nothing but himself, Skinner offers a point of view which become a doorway into the great universals. In ‘Queue’, one of the earlier poems in the collection, he tells us that:
The line for immortality’s long, longer than the DMV’s, and you hear
The same jokes about eternity.
This self-knowing, almost dad-joke sensibility is as personal as it is ironic. You hear the same jokes but once you can concede that they are the same, your eyes relax and there’s a chance to see more. Think of it like one of those “spot-the-difference” images. When you start looking, it’s amazing what you’ll find.
Time, in this collection, is not moving at a glacial pace but melting at the speed of global warming. The poet is a polar bear, stranded in a brand new sea of unfamiliar as everything in the world starts to change. The body is unreliable, unfamiliar, to the extent that it can feel like Peter Pan has woken up in a whole new world. Take ‘The Barber’ for example:
How fine, the back of that boyish head
Traveling backward in the mirror, infinitely.
The smaller and smaller heads are fathers
the man never knew, receding
back to the first – so tiny it’s not there.
But the barber is there, who started it all.
He doesn’t say much. He didn’t always cut hair.
This preoccupation with a place in time and space echoes throughout the poems, which is borne out by the introduction to each section, titled after the quotes which head them (Bidart, Golding and Emerson respectively), yet it is always open ended and unsure. The greatest triumph in the poems such as ‘The Barber’ or ‘The End of Striving’:
…Besides – I said to no one –
I’m calmer when I don’t
work out. Weaker, & calmer.
Here Skinner refuses to lop off the stranger parts of himself, and instead of being typical becomes unapologetic and strange. Time and again, this is where the poems start to really soar.
When it comes to playing with characters, Skinner wears a skin in a way that Chaucer would be proud of. Poems such as ‘I’ve Been Working On The Rail Road’ and ‘The Deal’ feel authentic and honest in a way that seems to be particularly freeing, and you can see that Skinner’s abilities as a playwright come to his aid in making the emotions credible and honest. Other repeated themes are touched on by the different identities a person can wear – from father to writer, from lover to child, and these are the times when craft comes sharply into focus. The language is tight, precise, and carefully used.
The most touching moments in this collection though aren’t in the addresses to lovers or children, which smack of Brautigan and the beat generation, but in the quiet conversations between friends. There is a bewilderment that comes with age – how did we let this happen to ourselves? There is an openness, a shining love between male friends which resonates through each direct tender address the poet makes to John. “Glaciology,” a poem in 16 parts, is as dazzling and heartbreaking as an ice crystal, as it extends itself throughout the full range of poetry – from the unpunctuated narrative of part 1, the one lined ache of part 7, to the almost philosophical wondering of part 13 which questions the difference between art and science. Free to fly between topics, this poem is beautifully crafted enough that each poem leaves you with an ache so profound that by part 18, one simple line: I leave my mind, even your bones are chiming with his song of ice, sorrow, love and leaving.
If I sound like I’ve been hard on the collection as a whole, perhaps I have, but if you’re going to walk such a well-documented path, then it’s important to have a new way to tell the whole story. Glaciology has that, and many surprises laced in between, the biggest of which is the dazzling array of tender which Skinner indulges in.