The Work of Judith Skillman

by Jeremy Voigt

Although often written in accessible language, with clear and memorable images, the work of Judith Skillman, a Centrum creative resident and poet who has released ten books, never settles for mere description. The poems often allow for the slippage, or leaps possible in lyric poetry as well as a probing for a conscious or unconscious understanding of the world. The poems are full of awe, homage, and a dark playfulness—all adding up to a great deal of pleasure. 

Her poem, “Salt” carries a few good examples of her use of strong detail and searching language working to make sense of the images presented. The poem opens:

Below the salt, there the poor live,
folks who have never seen white asparagus.
That which lends tang or piquancy, as in, wit—
the stockfish are barrel shaped today,
ringed with muscle and open at both ends…

She continues to meditate on different types of salt throughout history in its various guises and uses before delivering the lines that may open the poem to most readers and perhaps serve as her ars poetica:

Memory could be cathartic
if it were approached in an oyster-like fashion,

Real life, in all of its searing and mundane details are here, but are served up in thoughtful, witty, and beautiful structures. The title poem for these selected poems comes from the new poems section, and is a narrative memory poem chronicling the late night return of a neighbor woman to her husband. The narrative tension of the poem lies in the ambiguity of exactly what the woman returns from. The “oyster moment” of the poem is the persona’s insomniac meditation on the meaning of a woman fully enjoying her individual freedoms. She might have been “out with the girls” as the man she returns to supposes, or with another man, or any number of suggested things the details of sex and the domestic life the poem trots forth. But the crux of the poem is the speaker’s worship of this woman, of her existence, her actions, her body and what they might mean in a larger human societal context. The third stanza begins:

Maybe it was the mystery
of her womanhood, her fullness,
to be reveals with the next silent firework.
Or perhaps what the heat meant
was sweat, and sleeplessness.

Lightning flashes continue to reveal details of the house and the natural world until it is revealed that this woman is looked up to:

She, our mascot, magnet, compass rose,
might lie under the spell of idolatry for years.
So what if she never needed to tell the truth,
which was, after all, nothing more
than a blur, a white lie
leftover from a series of days
above ninety degrees.

The human mind, and memory work this way, of course, latching onto people or objects to idealize, learn from, make meaning out of in order to guide the self through life. The poet especially, one who simultaneously holds allegiance to the truth and to the lie, must seek these things out. These are my thoughts, as Skillman is never overt or dogmatic. She presents her subjects (people, the natural world, objects—both large and small), makes connections, comments, notes luminous details in the lightning flash of her poems, but (rightly) leaves the good work of interpretation to the attentive reader. These are poems that reward the reader with re-reading with strong single lines and engaging narratives. 

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