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Sally Bliumis-Dunn. Second Skin.

Sally Bliumis-Dunn. Second Skin. Wind Publications.

When I opened Second Skin, Sally Bliumis-Dunn's second book of poems, I tried to set aside my impressions of her first book, Talking Underwater, so I could read unfettered. But I wasn't entirely successful. Bliumis-Dunn's metaphor of "talking underwater"--that breakthrough at the surface of the senses--seems to have stuck with me. Moreover, I couldn't help but note that the title of the second book looks over the shoulder to the first, not only through the very word "second" but also through the image of "skin"--again that suggestion of surface and barrier, breakthrough and change.

Second Skin opens with an imperative: "Tell it Slant." The plain diction, the careful push toward completeness of thought down the short lines, through brief stanzas--once again Bliumis-Dunn addresses the very endeavor of it all. Ina few (deceivingly) tentative strokes, she manages to set the example in this poem, which is itself achieved through indirection. Just as we "can't look right at the sun," the world itself is "only visible / in the light that falls around it."

In Second Skin, Bliumis-Dunn remains focused on human experience, often gazing into the natural world for the fresh metaphor with which to speak about that experience. The "Dandelion" is a "semi-transparent" globe, which is itself compared to snow, wherein a tree or a house is still visible:
    beautiful now,
   and physically light
   as happiness often is:
   where all that is left
   of the body is like those
   white chutes of seed
   that look like so many
   tiny fountains
   when the wind at last
   scatters them. 

Here the shifting indirection of the imagery achieves an intimacy with the natural world through quick, visual accuracies. And yet, even though the poem ends with the dandelion (the vehicle of the metaphor), the tenor of the whole is that of human experience, human feeling--in this case, the ineffable nature of happiness.

Likewise, in "Late April," the imagery deftly represents the drift of apple and cherry blossoms, and at the same time represents the awareness of the shift in feeling, when the child can already feel "the spirit" of the birthday "closing the open mouth of its excitement."

In "White Pines," the image of the pines in the mist, "as though hovering between being and not being," is the vehicle for the state of "perfect indecision':
    when the thought is there,
   but the words remain packed
   tight in the throat--
   made beautiful somehow. 

Bliumis-Dunn remains dedicated to the poetic challenge of seeing clearly (despite the fog), of expressing the thought (despite the words packed tight in the throat), and also of making something "beautiful somehow" of these apprehensions that are poised precariously in present time. The globe of the dandelion gone to seed, the mist momentarily binding the pines, and that "tiny / parallelogram of light" through the window of the poem "Gratitude'--in these small poems, somehow the quick, precise imagery manages to hold onto what will not be held.

But in Second Skin, the poet also turns to gaze at remembered moments from childhood, and at relationships within the family. The collection's title is found in the poem entitled "Walls," which is dedicated in the epigraph to the poet's brother:
    we needed actual walls,
   fieldstones cool against
   our backs like a thicker
   second skin. 

"Walls" also provides a key to Bliumis-Dunn's means of telling it "slant" when the actual telling must be applied to family and other intimate relationships. With only the slightest mention of the trouble the children want to leave behind (one line: "the harsher sounds of home"), the poem enters the forest, beautiful with its "miniature petalled world" of star-like trillium and Dutchman's breeches. Here the children are more purposeful than Hansel and Gretel ever were: they work both at dismantling old fieldstone walls and at building for themselves the "actual walls" they need--a kind of "thicker / second skin." Without painting a visual image of her younger self and the brother beside her in that fort they built, Bliumis-Dunn reenters the moment by feeling her way home to the long-ago sensation of those cool fieldstones against the back.

The "family" poems, slipped in among the others, constitute the slimmest narratives--nothing much of a confession here. In fact, the poet gazes upon these remembered moments with father or mother, sister or brother, with both intensity and tentativeness, as though she were convinced that the only way to gain access to the crucial moment were to orient the self toward it, and breathe its air.

Though the diction is plain and the syntax straightforward, a reader feels compelled to move slowly through each poem in Second Skin, simply because the insights seem to spring from the lightest of pressure against the white space. Occasionally it isn't clear whom the speaker is addressing--the reader, an unnamed second person, or the self. And every now and then an unattached personal pronoun will cast a mysterious shadow. But ambiguity is forgivable in a lovely, slender poem that is pleasant to return to.

Bliumis-Dunn's poems are taut with the tension between awe and desire, poised in "perfect indecision." They seem to hold back, and then at the same time they make the break, like the quality of light in "A Slender Figure"--and like a diver, too, at the moment the toes spring "skyward," and just "before the body / begins to fall."
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Author:Mysko, Madeleine
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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