‘Parma Violets’ switches location from ‘the colonnades’ where ‘Count Pierre stalks’ to a wasteland ‘behind the estate’ where the narrator meets a girl who uses the sweet of the title ‘like the pill’. The poem concludes with the striking image of dropped yew tree branches in a cemetery taking root. The juxtaposition of these geographical and historical features is skilfully handled so that this seemingly disparate material holds the reader’s attention. But despite the interesting confluence of a mysterious European plant collector, the presence of sex (the encounter with the aforementioned girl with straggly hair) and death (the cemetery with its intriguing ‘walking’ yew trees) I struggled to consolidate these elements, to meld them into shared meaning that might generate a single emotional response. But perhaps that is not the poet’s intention and the overall effect of these multiple perspectives and locations, is, whether intended or not, to create a feeling of ambivalence and unease.
‘Scent of Magnolia’ begins with a fabulously imagistic metaphor; the magnolia bushes are ‘faulty machines,’ their fallen petals ‘old sparks that refuse to ignite’. The park is ‘bored’, the floor ‘sleepy’, and the shore ‘aphasic’. The description of landscape in terms of human moods and afflictions is, though apparently childlike in its simplicity, a sophisticated device, and one which is applied consistently through the poem to satisfying effect.
‘Indoor Pallor’ is one of several highly filmic pieces. I found it a (necessary) pleasure to re-read the poem several times in order to construct for myself some sort of coherent story. As with other poems in this collection, this piece contains intriguing clues and elements of a narrative from which the reader can build their own meaning. Layers of nuance reside in a combination of the enigmatic statement ‘A lot of life is learning to like blue’ and metaphysical simile ‘you are the blue light in a block of ice, / hinted at, but never seen’. This might prove irritatingly obscure for some, but I found the fine detail and carefully placed elements made for an intense and poignant mixture. This poem seemed haunted by the simultaneous presence of attachment and detachment, of intimacy in proximately with the aloofness implied by ‘the imperious nose, the predatory eye’. In the context of the poem there is also an inherent vulnerability in lines such as ‘you wait for the men to come’, that builds to potent emotional effect.
‘Budgerigar’, with its vivid ‘stain of salmon red / on chartreuse green’ is one of several poems that are shot through with colour. In ‘Plaza San Miguel’ a light touch conveys an understanding of a sense of a place and history with an indomitable permanence beyond the narrator’s brief romantic immersion. The sequencing of this pamphlet has obviously been given a great deal of thought, with themes, locations and images echoing and melding to build conversations and reflections between the poems.
‘Nefertiti’ is a luxuriant poem of superb contrasts, managing to be both expansively panoramic and focused on fine detail. It embraces the exotic and mythic whilst also being corporeal and intimate. Next is ‘Pillar’, an atmospheric sequence which concisely evokes the shifting light and variations of weather experienced on a high altitude walk in the English lakes. Place names are markers on a journey littered with images, which will be familiar to hillwalkers. Nevertheless Skinner manages to make the familiar arresting and vital – ‘A sheep’s skull - sun-worn, wind-greyed - lies half in, half / out of the tarn, / its loose teeth chocking in the jaw.’ A valley of dark conifers ‘creeps up the elbow of Ennerdale, / like a mange’. The light is, in places, ‘dismal’, and the clouds, ‘like bits of fleece, lour.’ Ultimately, as the walkers approach the top of their walk, the sun shines ‘like a yolk broke on tin’ and the poem leaves us with the feeling of a journey completed and resolving into a sense of hard-won and fatigued wellbeing.
‘Death in a French Garden’ is essentially a list, but unlike many list poems, the cumulative effect is to conjure a real sense of place. The human presence in the poem is confined to two-short lines. ‘A rosary. Hands like leather’ and yet it is possible to feel a tangible presence, or rather, perhaps, a ghostly absence.
‘Two Views of the Lacemaker’ is a ‘cut-up’ poem, prefaced by the extract from which its two sections are made. It is perhaps one of the less effective pieces here, although its inclusion does demonstrate a refreshing confidence and willingness to experiment with technique and to candidly display the ‘workings of the machine’. The poem literally adheres to one of the main precepts of this collection, namely that perception is dependent upon point of view and that multiple readings can be made of a single piece.
‘The Monarch Foundation’ explores the warped and disturbing credo of a mythical experimental psychological institution that appears to want total control of its inmates' emotions. The faceless banality of some of the pseudo-analytical language, for example ‘Something abolished internally will return from the outside in the form of a delusion’ is mixed with more fanciful and bizarre ‘The maps of fields they have crossed to get here are engraved on their souls.’ I was reminded of the powerful critiques of institutions by radical psychologists of the nineteen-sixties, such as Irving Goffman and R.D Laing.
Skinner has a fine eye and ear for detail, and he ambitiously and skilfully combines historical and geographical references with the more mundane or routine. His best pieces demonstrate a high level of craft and a singular vision. Overall, Skinner is not interested in writing sentimental renderings of events or offering neat one-dimensional snapshots, nor is he writing to ‘surprise’ for the sake of it. None of these poems contain pat ‘conclusions’ or ‘truths’; rather, they leave one with a sense, as Louis MacNeice wrote, of the world being ‘Incorrigibly plural,’ a sense of ‘The drunkenness of things being various,’ (MacNeice again): a sense that life is made up of contrasting and co-existing perceptions. There’s an impressive originality to this work and enough variation in subject and depth of intrigue to reward repeated readings. I look forward to seeing a full collection from Richard Skinner in future.' Roy Marshall, The Interpreter's House