The central metaphor of Rough Skin is one of building up protection against the perils of the outside world. Our skins are what hold us together, define our boundaries and identities as separate beings and, at the same time, being erogenous organs, they are what let us touch and be touched, and connect with others. At ten, she is told by her dermatologist that she has skin "like the alligator boy in the circus." On a trip to see the pyramids, the sun turns her forearms into blistering lumps. Small wonder she envies the snake the ability to discard skin like a pair of tight jeans. References to skin abound: in "Blue Medicine", the squat blue glass jar of Nivea Creme used to combat its dryness; the heat rash in Mexico that recalls the tag from an old song ("Gonna need an ocean/ of calamine lotion..."); the tactile eroticism of making love. It is at once our vulnerability and our protection.
This ambivalence toward skin carries over into Hynes's treatment of other subjects as well and indeed characterizes her attitude toward life in general. Again and again, we find hard, technological, or mechanical images juxtaposed with softer, natural ones or with images of fear and apprehension intertwined with revelations of beauty. In "Cards from Mexico", she contrasts "Papery bougainvillea, those folded/ cerise letters," swarms of yellow butterflies, and "warm night breezes that lean over and whisper, "How lovely, your neck, your bare shoulders," with the dangers and unpleasantness of that country: the diarrhoea, the lustful leers in the street, diesel fumes, centuries of exploitation. The fireworks in "International Fireworks Competition" are compared to flowers, "zinnias, mostly,...and Queen Anne's lace,/ manganese and titanium shivering themselves out." In "Intensive Care," the family "gather like stalagmites" while the doctors try to keep her mother alive with the accoutrements of modern medicine:
-she looks stabbed
in the mouth by the respirator
three tubes fang at her throat
steel pins puncture her arm
It is the voice of her daughter whispering, "don't/ go, don't go," that rouses her from her coma. Perhaps the most chilling of the poems using this technique is "Safes", in which the eroticism of the soft-skinned young adroitly placing condoms on the penises of their lovers is contrasted with soldiers rolling them over the barrels of their guns to protect the mechanisms from the fine blowing sand.
The men fire the guns, the bullets
split the latex, the air the skin flesh bone.
Hynes seems equally at ease writing delicate love lyrics ("Aubade"), political poems ("Safes" and "Still It Moves", dealing with the unjust persecution of Galileo), elegies ("The Spare Room", an eloquent exploration of loss and grief, which I hesitate to quote from; it should be read in its entirety), and wonderful whimsical pieces like "Bathrobe", written on the occasion of finding a white, fluffy robe left behind on the subway; here she investigates the sense of the absurd woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. Her range of subject-matter and styles is remarkable, her selection of details, impeccable. Many of these poems are triggered by objects whose meaning must be discovered: a stone from Virginia Woolf's garden, a bathrobe found on the subway, a pair of clear plastic cocktail shoes, half a pound of tea, a jar of Nivea Creme.
But perhaps the overriding impression these poems leave is their compassion. In "Cocktail Shoes", she sees a woman in the liquor store, "a jolt/ of red across her lips...her hair, oh, just a bit/ too full and blonde for her age," wearing clear plastic pumps. She mentally follows her home, imagining what the life of a woman who would wear this kind of shoes in the snow must be like. The pathos is undercut by a slightly humorous ending, another favourite device. Not only is she becoming comfortable in her own skin, but she is learning to inhabit the skins of others. When she sees an aging British war bride on TV, one done wrong by an American GI, but not embittered, she can imagine the fifty years of hardship endured in raising a child on her own: "I fly inside this woman's skin/ settle against her hopes." The most moving poem in the collection for me was "Ceremony without Candles", in which a now childless woman recalls an abortion. She feels kinship with all the women who have ever had to undergo this ordeal.
I did not think
to hold a ceremony without candles, a few
to mark a loss, to step towards the women who
small graves into the peat bog, their lives
seeded by deaths without funerals.
Her daughter would now have been eight.
Like a cellular certainty,
she has always been with me, before and after
that morning, a certainty now measured
with unlit birthdays.
There is a sensibility behind these poems that is easy to warm up to: one that is articulate, resourceful, humane. She invites us into the intimate recesses of her life, spellbinds us with the immediacy of her concerns. As we watch her define her world and learn to live within its boundaries, some of her spunk and resourcefulness rub off on us. Many of the poems unfold, not quite sure where they're going until they get there, full of surprise, delight. Such a one is "Forty-Four", lavish with caprice and celebration. On her forty-fourth birthday, she books a hotel meeting room downtown, holds a little press conference, and stands on a podium to announce, "I am delighted to/ be turning forty-four." Accepting the limitations of her age ("Oh, right, no babies"), revelling in its possibilities.
Prepare the house for lovemaking, buy wine and
irises and ten
colours of candles. New sheets, consider lace for
the first time
Strum every chord on the twelve-string guitar.
tangerines and grapes, this will happen for forty
four. Kisses that
taste like mango, kisses that melt your tongue into
This is the voice of a woman who is at home in her skin, balanced, sane, aware of her fragility and of her toughness, of the vicissitudes of love in its many guises. By the end of the book, she seems to realize that the rough skin she once viewed as a liability has become an asset, one that will enable her to survive the rigours fate has in store.
Pat Jasper is a Toronto poet, second-baseman, and duplicate bridge player.