(Evansville, IN: Southern Indiana Review Press, 2015)
As a writer, a crucial, early lesson often taught is to learn how to show an experience with craft and content, rather than tell of what happened. That was one of my first notes taken in the library of Wroxton Abbey with the great poets Reneé Ashley and Kathleen Graber the first week that I decided to take writing seriously. I remind myself of this every day, even when reading. In a world of post-modern poetry where people scream their stories, and social media reads, “This happened, and this happened, and we felt this,” poetic devices that have been used for hundreds of years to capture moments in life are sometimes difficult to find. Thankfully, with a little detective work, or a little luck, there is still poetry to be discovered that is rich in emotion, masterfully crafted, and full of the aspects of language that made me fall in love with literature – the latest being Dennis Hinrichsen’s Skin Music.
This is not to say that Hinrichsen doesn’t explore these devices, like structure and metaphor, in fresh ways. I’m often intimidated by poems that don’t have a block-ish form or stanzas in the traditional sense, but Hinrichsen’s collection quickly warmed me to this. It seemed the words in the first poem, “Variations on the Death by Drowning of the Poet, Paul Celan” begged for space. It pleads with the reader to give every word due recognition. How can you not read a poem of a drowning poet and not wonder what’s next, what’s connected or independent, and, as the speaker observes, “What nourishes his heart now / what sleeps with light in the iris”?
Like many of life’s questions, these remain unanswered, but as Mark Doty notes in The Art of Description, “Questions are always a little more trustworthy than answers.” He continues to say that a reader enjoys “that quality of both eagerness and humility, pushing toward the boundary and acknowledging that the boundary is there,” even when a question isn’t posed directly. Hinrichsen’s opening poem ends:
he drifts in the calving light
still to be found
and chirrs astonishment
as if this cut in gravity
this blood Sabbath
were the only refuge
self-blessing clenched in a water-skinned fist
The reader knows how this story ends before the poem begins and yet this stirs more uncertainty than sureness. The word choice alone is paradoxical – religious and scientific, personal and detached, ending with a closed fist. One can only wonder what this drowning poet has taken to their grave as the text never reveals these answers.
Throughout the collection, images of rivers appear many times and in many forms. In that first piece, the speaker directly refers to a river as “beautiful glass”, a “slit vein/ a silt vein.” Later, with conviction he describes one as “shook foil” and “fraudulent.” In the end, he admits, pondering duck eggs, that he “would have carried them all to the river / had they birthed.” The speaker breathes life, blood, and very human qualities into this force of nature. By doing this, it is not only the speaker changing his perspective on one of the most common metaphors for time and life; the river becomes very much alive side by side with the speaker. As his view changes, the river itself transforms its purpose, completing an arc that not even a human character could achieve. Similarly, in “Dialysis,” the speaker questions:
What do they dream—mother
and blood—those long hours
Here, blood, another common metaphor for continuity, is given the ability to dream. People often wonder what others who are sick or undergoing treatment may dream or think, but to ponder what the blood – the near absolute source of sickness in this case – dreams is a new perspective, one that can send the mind to explore new territory on an uncomfortable subject.
Under the umbrella of these larger metaphors, there seem to be hundreds more throughout the collection. In “Caravaggio’s Medusa as a box of nails” the speaker recalls this image of an old box of nails that his father kept years ago. But even from the title, the reader can expect a mythical experience with this typically lifeless object. About a quarter through the poem, Hinrichsen writes:
it was useless treasure to me
all the things a man never builds
solidified by gravity
to one nuclear core
more tomb debris than new circuits
drywall shimmering like panels of milk
a hundred times I set my hand down
to lift a portion of that writhing head
This is an incredible leap from such a heavy image to a lofty metaphor. Between “all the things a man never builds” and the overarching metaphor of this box as a Medusa reincarnate, could you ever look at a box of nails the same again? Calling again on The Art of Description, Mark Doty writes, “Perception is simultaneous and layered, and to single out any aspect of it for naming is to turn your attention away from myriad other things.” Although this can stand alone and shine, it’s the other elements of Hinrichsen’s craft that propel this metaphor. Past tense can easily create distance between the speaker and his or her experiences; it can even create a wedge between the reader and a poem itself. But Hinrichsen uses passive or soft verbs here, and very few of them. Even “solidified by gravity” removes action from any tangible thing. The content itself with its curious associations works in a similar way, transcending time. The perspective weaves between that of a child (treasure, milk, a hundred times) and a nostalgic man. With these two elements working together, this definitive, physical object and image becomes fluid, transformable.
Partner this with those larger scale metaphors of rivers, life’s brevity, blood, and coping, it is easy to see that each object and emotion in this collection is connected. The speaker seeks faith in every corner of his waking world, imagining the world itself is doing the same. And maybe that is what “Skin Music” is: the sounds of what surround the physical body for a lifetime. Though as with the questions explored in this collection, the skin has limits, and the reader is forced to explore them to the furthest, darkest corners. If not for the cover itself (a woman, very much alive, half tangled in roots underground), to rouse interest from your guests, Hinrichsen’s collection is a must read for those who are curious about what it means to exist in this world, how one relates to what has come before, and the distant imaginings of what is yet to come.
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Timothy Lindner is an MFA graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University who currently works as the Planning & Resourcing Manager for John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
This review also references Mark Doty’s The Art of Description (New York: Graywolf, 2010).