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POETRY: A Poet Stretches

Elizabeth Skurnick, Check-In (Caketrain, 2005)

For the poet today who wants to draw on contemporary forms, he or she finds that some of the most often used and passed around ones come from a single storehouse: creative writing workshops. Formal assignments are intended to “free their minds” and help them “think outside the box.” It’s as if poets, like Olympic athletes, have to limber up before they get down to business.

As I read Elizabeth Skurnick’s new book, Check-In, I imagined the poet perversely giving herself assignments such as: personify an organ; write a villanelle using a film genre; create a sequence describing your wife or husband.

To personify, Skurnick chooses the heart. “The Heart is driven out of the TV room for the fifteenth time by his sister and her friends, who wish to watch ‘Ice Castles.’” Generally, the charm of work on such themes fades rather quickly, but the author improves on the constraints by adding another one of her own, giving it a deeper emotional tone. The Heart is the name of an embarrassing sibling who is overweight, down on his luck, and sometimes male, sometimes female. From an exercise that encourages shallow romps, she constructs a disturbing character portrait.

To utilize a film genre, she pens “Villanelle Noir,” using a brief six stanzas to lay out a complete detective drama which cannily takes off from a central pun. Stumpy has been slain, and the only clues are leftover cigarette butts (stumps) that end up revealing the hit woman to be the femme fatale. As the shamus says, “Next time you go out tag-teaming/on your old man, change your brand, will ya?” With tremendous skill at compression, the poet makes each line do double and triple duty: solving a crime, tickling some clichés, developing characters, all the while meeting the rules of the form which demand the whole piece use only two rhymes, one in this piece being “tag-teaming,” “steaming,” “gleaming,” and so on.

In a series of poems about “My Husband,” who appears alternately as a dermatologist, a state trooper, and a broker, among other things, Skurnick, as she did in the Heart piece, opts for perceptive character studies. It is not as if she wants to find his essential being; instead, she fixes each man at a moment of change. In “My Husband Was a Spokesman for the President,” whose operative word is “was,” she talks about his displaced status now that he’s lost his post. “Before he lived in a room of black phones … Now, it is as if he’s been thrust underwater,/and cannot even undo his tie.” It ends, riding the same simile, with him “like a fish, his mouth opening and closing.” In other words, anything he says now, even words of love or heated remarks, appear to him as uncommunicative as speeches given under the sea, since he no longer speaks for someone powerful. The same poignancy is found in all these reflections on a spouse, as in the action of the skin doctor, who is so obsessed with cleanliness that “He would scour the sky itself and empty it of stars.”

Drawing from a set of workshop conventions widely used by younger poets, Skurnick has cut her lyrics to the quick, shedding excessive words and animating what’s left with unusual emotional weight, with such themes as the recklessness of young love and the diminishment implicit in most social roles. Proof again that a good writer can shape any form into an expressive vehicle.


Jim Feast


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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