Skinny by Carolyn Hembree
When I was thirteen, my great aunt left me to maraud around the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s modern art wing, and I happened upon a tiny room full of ten massive canvases where Cy Twombly put down the story of the Homer’s Iliad. I was captivated by this series. I saw the paintings as an artistic rendering of what I experienced when reading, a responsive, synesthetic inner world, a space where Achilles’ Vengeance is a furious scribbling of black and red and blue.
Carolyn Hembree’s Skinny transports me back to that antechamber in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fully submerged in the beauty and artistry at the intersection of self and wor(l)d. A young Southern woman, Skinny, takes off for New York City in a coming-of-age tour de force, as her family’s matriarch lays dying. This complex heroine is in rich dialogue with the ever-expanding world around her. The collection of poems evidences this dialogue through forms as diverse as ekphrasis, prose poetry, ode, ars poetica, and even an unexpected word problem which begins, “If Skinny’s headspace is decreased by 2h 25m of Bird talking 90 to nothing at the same time that Mamie’s front room is increased by the 15 mph figure eights of a television Elvis figure skater” (27). In addition to this eclectic collection of experimental free verse, ample epigraphs from both poetry and early 20th century films introduce further texts which inform both Skinny’s life and the poet’s work. This multitude of voices and traditions reflects the myriad ways Skinny attempts to construct meaning as she reflects on her birth and upbringing in the South and her new, disorienting experiences “inside this far off island/dream,” as the opening poem “A Real Movie Star” describes the big city (11).
Despite Skinny’s flight from the South, it is apparent that she never truly departs from her roots. Though “Skinny in Mamie’s Fake Bear Coat Re-enacts the Matrilineal Migration from Wales” is not “Skinny’s Ars Poetica,” which arrives later in the collection, the image of Skinny donning the furry coat of her matriarch and calling forth the narrative of the “rape o’ the milkmaid” that “begun our line” speaks to the nature of poetry, an insistent communication between history and present, poetic tradition and contemporary experiment (18).
To borrow Jane Miller’s words from the back of Skinny, Hembree does “rip” into language, viscerally. “Skinny’s Ars Poetica” details that process:
Going to reach down inside me
going to find out what’s down there what’s rustling around
Skinny’s view on the nature of poetry is a physical, almost violent, exploration of the self. What Skinny seems to find in this exploration is often a poetics of fissure, breakage, interruption. From the first poem, breakage is key: “Come back to us and out his dual knife-/ needle takes and gentle in her throat as if lover were given and/ last upon her face a new tool like a hairbrush electric (needles not bristles)” (11). The gorgeous manipulation of language that arises from this poetics also has the potential to alienate. At Mamie’s deathbed, Skinny reflects, “For she was oldpant-/ on-steps-old one mumbled once (the earpiece/ not to her ear) as she always did: Such as it is…” (52). Lines such as these may prove frustrating to less initiated readers, and there were times when I felt honestly befuddled (I’m still not certain who the recurring character of Bird is, though my guess is it’s another manifestation of Skinny’s personality). Like Berryman’s Dream Songs, the more complex grammar of lines like these, however, makes Skinny’s clear declarations all the more powerful. In the same poem, “Until Her Shadow’s on the Curtain Round Her Bed,” Skinny says, “My face, it cannot want to be kind” (52). Lines like these are powerful in their clarity, forceful in their direct honesty.
Hembree’s poetics and Skinny’s honesty direct us to language in the raw, a space integral to the human experience and to poetry in large, a museum antechamber of the self where one is in incessant, powerful dialogue with the world around us, the world that has been, and the world that could be. Like Twombly’s scribbles and smears, Skinny challenges the observer, ultimately having the effect that challenging art has: the expansion of art, language, and the self.