Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Skeleton Coast

By Elizabeth Arnold

Reviewed By Melih Levi

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Perhaps we cannot measure intimacy. Intimacy is so fervently attached to presence, to being together and a sense of confidence in being together. But how long can it last? Where in poetry can we find it? Is it in words, or in their absence? In measured silences? Is it when we are about to break a line or taste a rhyme? Is it in the struggle of an image to carry us through a body of language and beyond? Is it in the elsewhere of which poems speak? Or do we recognize it in the aftertaste that poems often leave with us, in how a piece of language or rhythm finds its way unexpectedly back into our body and mind? In how, as Rae Armantrout puts it, “a lost / word // will come back / unbidden”? Language can be shelter. We can belong in language. But how is this possible when it seems so hard to lose sight of the double life of words: how they go about their day while at the same time pointing us toward some kind of transcendence?  Christian Wiman talks about how “the immense, ungraspable, mystical reality that overwhelms us is also the concrete, suffering, sometimes all-too-touchable face right in front of our eyes.” In Rosmarie Waldrop’s breathtaking translation, Edmond Jabès writes, “For a time we became the same word. It could not last.” That seems like an apt definition of the stab of intimacy which poems make us feel. Its melancholy tone is also apparent. Intimacy, in that sense, is so much like time, which, as Jacques Derrida argues, is what happens in the meantime when we’re not actively measuring it, when we’re not conscious of its passing.

Elizabeth Arnold’s Skeleton Coast begins by recognizing this relationship between intimacy and time:

I was
out of time before I started.

The speaker enters the poem like a jazz musician, testing the waters before going for it. We don’t know this voice yet, but it wants to reach us from out of time. If we pause briefly at the end of the first line, we might observe how the past overwhelms meaning: “I was.” But the speaker wants us to continue; the line break insists that we are now in time, in the time of the poem, which requires a break from the actual experience of time. We are now, in other words, in the lyric time, growing increasingly conscious of the discrepancy between how the speaker experiences time, or comes to experience from outside of time, and how we must take our time in order to escape the pedestrian affinities of language. What follows is an enactment of these very problems through an everyday mise-en-scène:

the Meyer lemon
blooming while full of fruit, our breeze way letting

a breeze through, its floor
smooth, that kind that stays cool

The artistic operation and the organization of the senses here are reminiscent of the French painter, Paul Cézanne, who famously declared: “The landscape thinks itself in me and I am its consciousness.” The smooth and long sounds demand a sensual experience of the scene: they stretch the surface of language, the skin of the poem, so that images are not only tools, not means toward some ends, but momentary ends in themselves, experiences. Arnold is careful, however, not to frame this sensuality as purely metaphysical. The objects and places are chillingly rooted in their everyday functions; they do what they do. This is the governing duality in the entire collection: the poet never fails to entertain the attraction of stamping our consciousness on a certain scene or poetic phrase, but she also continuously tests the limits of such personalization. There are numerous images that dramatize this problem. Take, for example, the following lines from “Growing Up in the South”:

 . . . my hands

hampered by the wrist-length gloves I’d put on

earlier, each finger
all the way in.

I didn’t choose any more than I

chose my mother or father
or the church

Paradoxically, the simile to fit like a glove does not fit well into the language here. Trying to contain this idiomatic expression, the line suffers and stretches, and the speaker’s hands are forced into complex syntactical structures that exceed language. The social dimension of this experience is apparent: the poet is forced into cultural and societal structures where a performance of fitness is expected, yet, the self always exceeds such impositions and shows, even if the speaker admits to having to “live and move by way of these things.” This mismatch is accentuated on the level of language: words barely fit into verse; they keep spilling over and reveal the self’s need for intimacy and connection. Where the speaker exposes her vulnerabilities, the reader must connect and piece together. There is intimacy in this kind of exercise, for the act of reading is also a process of marking and being marked by language.

Elsewhere, the speaker remembers a “performance of the Oresteia” she saw “at Court Theater in Chicago” where the “grayish purple-pocket like leotards” worn by the dancers were:

—not tight-fitting but tight enough that

moment to moment you’d see
an elbow maybe, a head

At the end of this sequence, the speaker admits to “not [having] really bought” what the performers “submitted” to. One wonders if her lack of submission is exactly what is needed in order to sensationalize the depiction of tyranny on the stage. The leitmotif of the illusion of perfect fitness, initiated earlier with the “wrist-length gloves,” shows up once again, making the reader wonder if words can be “tight enough” for meaning, or if, despite the movement afforded to them by syntax and verse, they make individualistic demands on the readers’ attention, always thirsty for the right amount of stress and pressure to discharge their echoes and reverberations. In “Source,” on horseback, the speaker tries to address her companion, while “the horses’ hooves (sink) into” the sand and:

each word with its pool of meanings

existing only for the speaker,
words as material as rain

torpedoing sand instead of being

springs, sources
of imagination, love—of civilization.

The materiality of words is deceiving; their seeming sturdiness on the surface may fault us into believing in a surface without depth. Yet, words dent and swell. In “Etymologies,” the poet starts out by introducing the etymologies of the verbs “live” (to remain, to be left behind) and “deceive” (to take away). Given these etymologies, we can’t make our way through the poem as through a surface; each time we enter the force fields of these words, we fall into a well of meaning, historical and overwhelming. It is in the backdrop of these tensions that the poet takes us to Namibia’s notorious and death-ridden “Skeleton Coast,” the title poem made of nine individual sections. This is not landscape poetry, rather it is a series of poems turning the self into a landscape. Painterly perspective, conceived as an attempt to impose an objective authority upon subjectivity, utterly disappears, “death to the eye you know”:

On the other side of the mind
’s experience,

above subconscious happenings such as fear,

too human in my turning away and
running from the mess

Arnold’s book is the most authentic and demanding exploration of intimacy that I’ve so far encountered. Its meticulous examination of the cognitive and ethical stakes of constituting a world through poetry is breathtaking. This is partly achieved by its masterful structure: the entire book alternates between couplets and one-line stanzas, which sustains a dramatic tension between separation and unity. Such formal dichotomy is heightened by images that seem to epitomize both ends of the spectrum while preserving their agility to pass for each other: “hawks kettling on the thermals” or “sardines school(ing) / making an elusive column / called a bait ball” and “the looping branches or roots of a mangrove.” The movement between one- and two-line stanzas proves to be the perfect depiction of how the most articulate moments of intimacy are filled with longing.

Melih Levi is a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford University. He studies English, Turkish and German poetry from the late nineteenth century onward, with particular attention to poetic form and prosody. He is also a translator. His co-translation of one of the earliest Ottoman novels Felatun Bey and Rakim Efendi was published by Syracuse University Press in 2016.