In her thirteenth collection of poems, The White Cypress, Judith Skillman takes up again the tools of naturalistic observation and mythical allusion to examine difficult truths about the interior life of the self and its drives toward intimacy and seclusion, eroticism and entropy, as well as the paradox and complexity inherent in familial relationships. Skillman's tone is occasionally lofty but most often direct, incisive, unflinching. Her unerringly sharp eye for detail earns these heavily imagistic yet philosophical poems their weight.
The main theme here, subtly woven throughout the collection, is the “seven deadly sins,” and the poems are divided into three sections: “Lustful Appetite,” “Irascibility,” and “Intellect.” According to Skillman's end note, the lion's share of sins are classed into the final category. However, rather than borrow from biblical and ecclesiastical sources of inspiration for her examination, Skillman draws most of her allusions in these poems from Greek mythology (the tragic tale of Narcissus in particular), and for the most part, the poems' raw materials come from daily experience—from thoughtful observation of the natural world.
Juxtaposed with the tale of the beautiful youth who dies in his prime is another theme, that of the body and the erotic life in light of the effects of aging. Many of the poems in The White Cypress seem to explore what might have happened if Narcissus had lived long enough to love someone other than himself and, in this state of acquired consciousness, learned shades of despair more nuanced than the doomed desire born of self-recognition.
In “Deciduous,” Skillman manages to make a tried-and-true metaphor sound new, without the comfort of sentiment: “We all of us change color and become worthless./ Our bodies trunk-like, our skin like raw silk, chafed/ by the clothes we use to cover nakedness.” The poem ends with “Ruddy-faced, orange-hearted, or just plain yellow –/ we're like the drift of autumn, tidy now and feather-light,/ raked by husbandry into its place curbside.”
In the subsequent poem, “Nettles,” the instinct of intimate partners toward self-preservation that seems a necessary strategy in youth eventually becomes a bitter, immutable reality: “I thought then/ of what we'd tried to do/ with our bodies all along:/ to keep them from melting/ one into the other,/ to preserve/ the uneasy boundary/ of words and signs/ that grows between us.” In this same vein, Skillman's final poem, “Becalmed,” begins with resignation: “The cherry in flower,/ the children gone,/ the lust for lust/ grown into a different creature,/ one who sits in a patch of sun.”
In “August Again,” Thanatos seems for a moment to claim full victory, and what was once most dreaded suddenly becomes desired: “She wants to grow old,/ to become more vacant// than the heat,/ and look back/ on her life/ as if it were a faraway thunderhead.” However, in a later poem, “Horse's Trough,” the onus returns to the speaker, carrying with it the flip side of the erotic impulse, the unending responsibility it engenders, especially for a woman:
Admit your daughter
will never be Demeter.
The koi have grown large and golden.
They circle in the trough
like Oriental secrets.
Your daughter will not conceive.
She'll not abandon leather
for soft fabrics,
nor take off the gloved hands
that make her a stranger.
It's you who must scale this fish.
This very female incarnation of Eros heeds the rallying cry in “October,” as “The wild rose strains to birth// one more blossom, to tinge the edge/ of winter's sword with blood.”
Early in the collection, “Envy” best captures the first category of sin, that of lustful appetite: “Give us back our faces, though they be blank/ with wanting. There will never be enough// to go around. We know the sweets./ We slouch to guard them with our posture.”
Later, in “Lemon,” Skillman shows her range by offering reprieve from the thread of human frailty with an ode to the pristine fruit prized for its simplicity: “At this time in the morning/ it's a truck/ carrying the sun.”
In “Columbine,” human and wild nature temporarily converge:
The garden full of phlox,
the thought-petals pillaged by furry bees
inside whose congregations
galaxies of yellow burned like small suns.
However graceful the garden,
our Lady's Gloves reminded us
we had time on our hands – those hands
our own five-fingered blossoms.
And finally, “June Bug” looks squarely at one of the hardest facts of nature, wild and domestic: “Best to stick with what myopia/ understands: that the kill/ has already taken place.”
In the context of the thirty-nine poems in The White Cypress, “the kill” appears to be Eve's sin as well as Narcissus's. These poems explore the lifelong ramifications of an elusive sin both original and deadly, yet committed in a time of innocence—no more than a youthful indiscretion. Although each girl and boy may repeat the error in full knowledge, being well-acquainted from our schoolbooks with the respective mythologies, we do so in innocence, it seems, as if for the very first time. These meaty yet agile poems tell the story of what comes afterward—which, as we each know, is just about everything.
Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom's chapbook Blue Trajectory is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press this Fall. She edits the online journal Melusine and holds an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University.
The White Cypress
Červená Barva Press, 2011