Johanna Skibsrud. I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being.
Johanna Skibsrud. I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2010.
In this mixed-bag second collection of poetry, Johanna Skibsrud writes in two opposite styles: prose poems that are honest about being prose, and rather disjointed poems that are strewn across the page as if to justify the appellation of poetry. Skibsrud is best at incantation: the cadence of "When I Am Called To Stand" or the anaphora list-ness of "Let it" repeated build to an emotional end that is a kind of collapse, a plea of resignation, a self at odds with the self, a wish that there might be things that remain forgotten. All of this is accomplished at great stakes: the poet unabashedly uses the image of the "heart," which could have been cliche, but because of the palpable pain, such lived-in and spacious pain, the image is redeemed. It helps, too, that there's music: this "heart" is "cauterized in chasms," it is made to "stink and burst in the / retracted annals of the body." Another poem, "If In A Thousand Years," amplifies pain too, but articulates it in a pared-down and prayer-like structure. The title poem, also anaphoric, is particularly strong, if a little Seussian at its conclusion. Yet some poems are slight ("Bruno Helps Himself To Tomatoes" is one) and the prose poems seem underdone, not possessing enough music to rescue them from prosaicness. For example, "At a Certain Point, Everything Begins Again" has this deflationary floater of pseudo-profundity: "though I have not yet grasped, nor now anticipate grasping / hold of anything in the way that I had once imagined, as though to an electric / wire, it is, I think, the turn itself that's certain and will last: that furthest / extension of the self ..." There's more such attempts at philosophizing in "In Which I Imagine Myself Contained Within The Pages of a Book." Other anecdotal poems aren't carried past their germinative impulse. Some poems have the most arbitrary of line breaks (ending mid-stream on prepositions and articles, for example, with the effect of amputated enjambment, of terrifying sense-precipices) and whole stanzas read as capriciously at odds, without logic, from the rest of the poem. There is not a great use of space in this book, with poems or sections either off-set in blocks, or scattered over the page, which point deserves a second mention. Some poems meander; I would challenge Skibsrud to write a truly tough, concentrated lyric. Those that would seem to so, such as "At the Party," are too light both in terms of device and in terms of emotion, or "This," which asks melodramatically "What creeping darkness will descend ... What vast / emptiness will at last reveal itself to be the / heart of things?" All told, there is a handful of poems here to reread, which makes this book feel more like a debut that like the work of a poet honing her craft.