Dogged iambs, insistent archetypes

Blue Rivers: Poems by Douglas Reid Skinner, Snailpress/Crane River 2011.

In dogged iambs, insistent archetypes (of the seasons in particular), modified by a certain playfulness, Douglas Reid Skinner recalls the almost-but-not-quite nature of the poetic experience:

For exactly when we entrust to language
What we meant or we mean, it disappears-

The few poems where the ‘“I”, the “egotistical sublime”, moves into the wings and turns the spotlight on others: the dear departed, personified oranges, trees: are the ones I like best. In “Tea Ceremony” (tea is a recurring motif in these poems) Skinner pays homage to his late mother:

And every time she’d
Rinse the pot and warm it up and give the leaves
A single stir to help them draw, then slowly pour
What always seemed to me to be the perfect cup.

In the poem “In Absentia”, the poet recalls his father:

I wasn’t there to see a shadow step
Into his room and squeeze his heart until
He sighed and lay back upon the bed and died;
Not there to see his hand attempt to hold

Onto the green-baize folding table where
They found his cold, half-eaten evening meal.

In the context of this deeply moving poem, I find the playfulness of the internal rhyme a little disconcerting. I feel the same way about the dangling participles (surely deliberate?) in the poems “Untitled” and “Theology”:

And sitting in the lamp’s warm glow
Not one of them’s your own.
(from “Untitled”)

Driving home across the island, the rain cleared
To dangerous, iced-over roads and moonless skies….
(from “Theology”)

Similarly disconcerting are the witty titles: “It’s About time”; “Secession”; “Unsuitable”, “In General”. I guess I should have been prepared for this by the disingenuous epigraph, which translates: “It’s only ink and paper.”

Despite this playfulness, Douglas Reid Skinner is, in fact, a deadly serious poet. Creating poems is his raison d’etre. Without the consolation of religion, which takes the sting out of death, some of us turn to poetry, which sees death as a necessary part of life. As Keats put it: “Death is life’s high meed.”

Poetry, lyric poetry at least, is a threshold experience, a merging of opposites, which creates an illusion of timelessness (or oneness) – what James Joyce called an epiphany. This word connects the religious experience, a manifestation of Christ (the immortal) with the secular poetic experience, a manifestation of beauty (that which must die). This may be felt by the writer as well as the reader of a poem:

I happen to be the one who wrote
The words that you now read.
You happen to be the one who reads
The words that I once wrote.
(from “Untitled”)

But these lines are flat, and they are typical of some of the poetry in this volume. It’s a kind of gnawing away at philosophical issues rather than seeing, as Blake puts it, “a world in a grain of sand”.

Of course, Skinner is quite aware of this. In one of his finest poems, in memory of one of South Africa’s finest poets, Don Maclennan, he states, “Basho got it right”. The great master of the haiku asserted that the apparently useless things and events in life had real value — the sound of a frog jumping into a pond — not the great abstractions like “love, / Faith and joy” (“Intermezzo”). Skinner ends this poem with the assertion: “That the centre doesn’t hold doesn’t matter — it never did”; yet many of these poems demonstrate that it does matter — deeply.

However, Skinner is as much a “chameleon poet” (subconscious) as he is a “virtuous philosopher” (conscious), hence the recurring mirror imagery; and it is this mix that makes a number of his poems difficult to assimilate. He is either trapped in linear time as in the poem “For a Moment”, which asks: “What can this page possibly explain?”; or he is lost in delirious “Blue Rivers”; “fat cherries steadily reddening” (note the assonance) in “Making Sense”; and “the gentle engines of the trees” in  “It’s About Time”.  He demonstrates this dichotomy in “Vacillation”:

The voice insisted he throw the first away,
the one that appeared straight out of the blue
as he sat immersed in random qualia,
near sleep on a train to Waterloo.

Back home, he warmed to the task and began
making adjustments and changing rhythms,
tinkering away and teasing out a story
that anyone could follow, more or less.

The third time round there was little impetus
and  too much uncertainty. Without a voice,
none of the tricks he could muster counted;
it ended up crumpled, consigned to the bin.

Then after a week, the serendipity
of snow in a glass globe dragged him back
to the fray. The voice was loud and clear:
knuckle down, be strong and act without fear.

Of course, in the morning, all bets were off.
The field of play was strewn with clues
and intimate allusions, yet stubbornly stayed
angular and awkward, a fraction out of kilter.

A walk on the beach, he decided, but then
caught  himself in the rearview mirror.
Of course, he thought: distance and reflection.
He sighed with relief and selected a station

Playing Beethoven’s Sixth, and sat listening.
A few subtle shifts, some delicate tweaks, and
That’s it, he exclaimed, to no one in particular.
I reckon there’s nothing left over to say.

Or so it seemed, until the following day…

A number of his poems are meta-textual in this way, poems about the experience of composing poems; and they’re always “a fraction out of kilter”.  Another aspect of Skinner’s playfulness occurs in this poem — his colloquialisms, like “out of the blue”, “warmed to the task”, “consigned to the bin”, “field of play”.

It’s the Chameleon poet I warm to, the “man in the middle of a field” where “blossoms of April are falling like snow”, where, beneath the trees, there are “bright shadows”. What did Keats, with deliberate depersonalisation, write? “It has no self — it is every thing and nothing — it has no character — it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto.” The experience is the meaning.

Douglas Reid Skinner is a poet’s poet, and the final piece in this challenging collection demonstrates how seriously, how, finally, without playful irony, he takes his craft. The poem, “Life of the Mind”, is guided by an epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges. It contains the archetype, which names this anthology: “a Common Blue waltzing slowly / through the haze of summer’s gloaming”. This is the “singular thing that [keeps] him going” as he moves into his twilight years. I too, am in my twilight years, and I wish that I could spend them on the banks of a blue river, transforming the indignity of old age into music.


Colleen Mary Ferguson says:

Poetry allows one to enter in to soul of the writer ~ Douglas Reid Skinner writings are of the best.