Sep 29 2022
Poetry review – DREAM INTO PLAY: Carla Scarano examines the puzzles and contradictions expressed in Richard Skinner’s poetry
Richard Skinner’s latest collection explores the scenario of a surreal, fragmented reality that cannot be reassembled. Displaced images and a sense of estrangement take the place of all certainties replacing them with disillusionment and alienation of the self. The poet is like a stranger lost in a bleak setting: he is powerless and apparently uninvolved in what is happening around him. Life evolves into contradictions that cause pain, so looking at the world from afar seems a sort of self-defence mechanism.
As in his previous collection, Invisible Sun, Skinner often refers to literary texts and literary criticism. This collection too takes an intertextual approach that connects the poems to various literary references, such as Roland Barthes, the Italian poet Andrea Ghibellini, David Harsent, Caedmon and the artist Leonora Carrington. As Barthes states in ‘The Death of the Author’, texts are ‘a tissue of quotations’ drawn from different sources, and the meaning of the text depends on the interpretation of the reader, who makes connections to their own experience and to the literary world. This process is complex in Skinner’s work as his interests are wide, ranging from film to painting, music and literary criticism. He has published poetry, prose, fiction and non-fiction, and his work has been translated into eight languages. He is the editor of the poetry magazine 14 and director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy.
Dream into Play focuses on the inconsistencies present in our reality and in the inevitable constant presence of loss and death. All our efforts and endeavours seem to be shattered by the reality of death, an ending that eventually means all our actions have been in vain. Is there anything we can do to leave a trace of our presence in this world? Can we really fulfil our desires and complete our being during our lifetime? Knowledge might help but it does not solve the conflicts we face and the grief we experience. The epigraph from Song of Solomon at the beginning of the book refers to the soft grass on which the bride would like to lie with her loved one. It is an all-compassing spiritual love which is, however, absent from the poems in the collection. Indeed, it is a yearning for something or someone that will never be fulfilled.
The first poem, ‘The Green Capitals’, is set at Cape Wrath in the Highlands; it is an old Norse name meaning ‘turning point’ but it also echoes the English word ‘wrath’, that is, extreme anger. In the poem the protagonist recalls some of his mother’s words that hurt him and still resound in his heart like a ‘blood’s virus’. A similar perspective is revealed in the poem ‘Crocodile Mother’:
Mother gets in your eyes. The tracks of my mother. The mother of a clown. […] Moved to mother. Driven to mother. Necessity is the tears of invention. Some tears do ’ave ’em. Blood, sweat and mother. The tears of all battles. Keep tears. Tears tongue. Tears of God. Holding back the mother. Burst into mother. Super tears. Wicked steptears. Crocodile mother, Motherjerker. It will all end in mother. Yummy mother.
The poem is thought-provoking and plays ironically with the carnivorous image of the female crocodile that hypocritically cries after eating its victim. It is a recognisable image, however disturbing, that challenges the common concept of mothers’ selflessness and suggests instead memories of pain. The way the poet looks at these memories is a ‘turning point’ that does not deny the effect of the trauma but revisits it from a disillusioned viewpoint.
One of the central poems in the collection is ‘Atropos’. It speaks in the voice of one of the three Fates who weave and maintain the thread of the lives of humans, according to Greek mythology. Atropos cuts the thread at the end, accomplishing her job with precision and deftness. It is an inevitable act that is, however, expressed in the poem in a controversial way. The lines communicate her preference for dreams and imperfections, suggesting a life beyond the predictable ordinariness and therefore beyond death. It is a life of illusions or artistic creativity that might be an aesthetic act against extinction.
The poems present different kinds of forms, from sonnets or 14-line poems to a prose poem in which the text is taken from an in-flight magazine and any mention of a body part is replaced with the word ‘poem’. There are long sequences and sharp, short pieces. Some poems refer to the lockdown, describing ‘streets outside empty of people,/of crime, horseplay, pit bulls.’ Unsettling repetitions question certainties, decentring all possible truths:
My punk? Daft. My enemy? Public. My underground? Velvet. My furs? Psychedelic. My dead? Grateful (‘Band Aid’)
Life and death are therefore united in a radical openness to a constant flow that is an intentional dissolving of the self, as described in the last poem, ‘Life in a Oncetime’:
behind me where there is the wheel of a lifetime that is ever flowing I let the dissolving days go You ask me where I am What to hold on to
Skinner’s poetry investigates the importance of language, which seems to be the last anchor that allows humanity to make sense of life and death. His critical approach is therefore not hollow but reveals the transformation of personal memories into literary products. The powerfulness that the poet experiences as a human being becomes the creative centre of his exploration which refuses solutions and accepts contradictions and estrangement but is also open to a vital flowing of energy that gives space to silence, shadows and possible redeemed scenarios.