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Concerned Attentions & Against All Odds:

Frank Golden reviews two of Knute Skinners' poetry collections

 

 

e

Frank Golden is a Clare based poet, novelist, and visual artist. His last novel The Night Game (Salmon 2015) was described by Declan Burke in The Irish Examiner as “a challenging, transgressive, and gripping read, a chilling portrait of one woman’s personal hell.” gotta get a message to you (Salmon 2017), his fifth collection of poems, was described by Afric McGlinchy/Southward as having "an originality of observation and expression…in this startling and exciting collection." He has received awards and bursaries from The Irish Film Board and the Irish Arts Council. He is Head of Creative Writing at the Burren College of Art.

 

 

eConcerned Attentions

Knute Skinner

(Press, 2013)

ISBN: 978-1-908836-60-1

€10 paperback

Buy from Salmon

 

cAgainst All Odds

Knute Skinner

(Press, 2016)

ISBN: 978-1-910855-26-3

€12 paperback

Buy from Lapwing

 

 

 

In ‘Self-Assessment at Eighty’ from Part I of Concerned Attentions Skinner compares himself to Shakespeare and on a number of counts, not least artistic achievement, he genuflects to the peerless poet and playwright. In typically wry Skinner fashion he ends the poem with the observation that in one respect he is comparatively advantaged –“I am still above ground.” We should all be thankful that this singularly unusual poet is still amongst us, and on the evidence of the work in both these volumes, producing poems that are enigmatic and deeply compelling.

 

Skinner has often been viewed as a poet who validates the quotidian, to paraphrase Brian Arkins in his introduction to Fifty Years Poems 1957 – 2007. Clearly occasional poems and poems which reflect relational and other realities in Skinner’s life are a rich and engaging seam in this poet’s corpus, but for me Skinner’s ‘fictions’ constitute his most original work. ‘Bears and Other Poems’, a volume which appeared from Salmon in 1991, marks the beginning of these wondrously compressed and alluring fictions, which Aidan Murphy deemed; ‘full of mystery, cross-purposes, weird and tragic characters’.

 

Skinner is one of the great generators of elliptical poetic narratives. His poems like the greatest short stories never exist in a state of preamble. He intersects with lives at critical junctures, adopts personae, uses dialogue to pressurise vapid scenes. He leaves us with sufficient co-ordinates and with sufficient space to infer story developments and endings and he provides us with scenarios that are familiar enough that we can instate our own personae and memories. One wonders, given his natural storytelling instincts why he has never written in a longer form. Although Skinner is a different kind of poet to Anne Carson he has her readability, and perhaps, like Carson who tried to write a novel but just ‘got bored’, he too would simply tire of rendering the detailed fabric of worlds. Carson went on to say that with novel writing; “I just kept having too many words. When I get too many words, I don't feel that I'm saying anything. I'm just saying the words, not the thing. So I have to keep cutting it down, cutting it down, and it gets turned into verse" (Anne Carson interviewed by Emma Brockes, The Guardian, 2006). You get the same feeling from Skinner of deliberate, radical, and scrupulous excising of lines and words until you are left with the bones of something entirely, uniquely, and mysteriously itself.

 

I cannot think of another poet writing today who has such a range of narrative gifts, or is capable of the tonal shifts that are present in these poems. There are perhaps some fiction writers who come close, writers like Lydia Davis, or Amy Hempel, or at a visual level the paintings of Martin Gale, who depicts commonplace scenes and activities where something is always awry, some darkness is presaged, some disaster impends. In ‘Taking Stock’ (Concerned Attentions), the narrator has made a journey to a house by train and knocked on both the front and rear doors, but there is no answer. He or she thinks of returning on the 6.25, but doesn’t. Details such as an ‘overturned barrow’ ‘and a ‘ripped-open bag of compost’ are noted. The narrator chooses to sit ‘and watch as the weak March sun/slips behind the shed’. The final image of ‘nettles and dock’ is of rank nature flourishing. The reason for the visit and indeed what has happened to the occupant of the house become part of the poem’s mysterious orchestration.

 

‘The Ruins’ (Concerned Attentions) charts the progress of a couple who have quarrelled. The narrator - the man, leaves his partner and goes to view ruins he has travelled thousands of miles to see. His partner follows him, and in an effort to collapse the distance between them enfolds him from behind. They pass into the ruins together. The narrator fails to get the photographs he desires and bad weather entraps them in the desultory atmosphere of the hotel bar. They do not return to the ruins, but seem to evince in their ‘forced cheer’ a degraded love.

 

From ‘Old Bears and other Poems’ onwards there is a scene which Skinner revisits time and again and it is evident once more in ‘Old Postures’ (Concerned Attentions) where the humans in the poem become aware of emanations on the boundaries of gardens or on the other side of thresholds. These presences have an otherworldly register, like Korean gwisin, at once knowing, watchful, expectant – as though they are waiting to gather the watchers in, and make them their own. “They are standing there stock still/while I stand in the dark hall,/Bible in hand./If I drew the blind, I could see them.”

 

‘Against All Odds’ is a small book of exclusively fictive poems. ‘Angel’ depicts the scene of an old couple, the man trying to finish reading a column on the World Series in his morning paper, the woman wheelchair bound and long suffering stationed near a window. The mailman comes and another magazine ordered by the wife thuds as it hits the floor. The power dynamic between them is deftly outlined, she the puppet master pulling the strings from her incapacitated station, delivering one honeyed manipulative command after the other, laced with controlling elan, and ending with; “would you be an angel and see/what the mailman has brought us.”

 

‘Trees All Around’, the final poem in this volume, is in the guise of a narrator who has had a strange experience with a young girl in a forest near a lake. He goes on to become a deacon, to marry and have children, but he remains haunted by what happened that night long ago and, when making love to his wife ‘can almost hear the strange sounds/that drift in off the lake’.

 

The range of acts committed and of scenes developed in the ‘fictions’ in both these books is incredibly broad. In the main they are relational in their context, fraught or decided narrators, wistful or hyper-attuned protagonists. It is difficult to know why these aspects of Skinner’s work have not received more attention. They are more reflective of our times than the occasional work of most poets. On a personal level I would love to see an edition of Skinner’s fictions brought together in a single, and at this point, large volume. These poems deserve a wide readership. They deserve acclaim.

 

 

©2018 Frank Golden

 

Author Links

 

Author's website

Irish Times article about Golden's 2017 collection gotta get a message to you

Examiner review of Golden's The Night Game

 

 

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