A professor of mine told me she avoided terms like "good" and "bad" when judging a poem; instead, she insisted on assessing its "competency". Assuming that competency is preferable to incompetency, nearly half the submissions included in this latest offering from Insomniac Press should have been returned: there is a difference between facility with language and facile language that many of the contributors seem to have forgotten about. But provided the reader is patient enough to mine through the rubble, the gems found need little polishing, and the anthology is somewhat redeemed.
Written in the Skin is comprised of poems dealing with the effects of AIDS, both on those infected by the virus and those affected by its contraction by loved ones. Rather than "being a collection of AIDS poems", as editor rob mclennan points out in his introduction, this anthology is divided into sections of "Love", "Loss", and "Death" that sketch "realities surrounding AIDS" as experienced by the thirty-eight writers featured.
After wading through the muck of early lines in "Love", such as
We were both, of course,
& genuinely believed, to the point
of cast iron
("The Carefully-Compared Body" by Gil McElroy)
and "Marxist boys, man!/Make me cream and scream" ("roly-poly marxists" by Kathryn Payne), the trudging reader stumbles into michael achtman's "flesh of my flesh", a mostly competent long piece exemplifying the uneven nature of the anthology. Invoking the biblical brothers, Cain and Abel, achtman compares the transmission of AIDS with Cain's fratricide:
between the time i dug the knife through him
and the time he died there were, oh i would say,
twenty-five or thirty breaths.
When interrogated by God as to Abel's whereabouts, Cain explains his brother's regenerative return to dust: "i was fucking him/and he turned into this garden". After such evocative imagery, however, the poem sinks into the silly simplicity of
but what is fastened
you will see
longs to be
Like a stone skipping across water, the reader skips through the rest of "Love", staying above water (at times even floating) with Sky Gilbert's humorous take on Katherine Hepburn's thespian persona in "Thoughts on `Bringing Up Baby'", a study of Lewis Carroll's eccentricities in Stephanie Bolster's "Symbolic Logic" (although I question its relevancy to AIDS), and the slightly rebellious introspection of Catherine Jenkins' "the bath".
One of the more successful pieces appears in "Loss". It is David O'Meara's "Friction", in which he dichotomizes the friction of bodies which both allows lovers "to make a fire" and "keeps wearing us away". The section also unearths an intense description of love-making in the first of nathalie stephens' "three poems":
The pained fragment of regret is solitude's
a place of tempered light and ecstasy, where the path
travelled across skin into pleasure is longing's
There is a haunting description of a body decaying in Mac McArthur's "Final Past My Arms":
What bakes to a crust becomes loam,
a feather light as the airs above
and below it but not part of it.
Nor part of me and the waters I add to compost
(bone meal, coffee, urine and the scraps
of what comes from an early garden).
The final section, "Death", grapples with the aftermath, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The section opens with perhaps the most anguished poem in the anthology: Marilyn Bowering's "Mirror Gazing". The speaker personifies AIDS as a thief cheating her of a child prior to its conception:
You were taken from me by a bandit.
He hides in the darkness.
I am not counting the bones he has placed
in the walls.
Searching in vain for the person who infected him, the speaker of Blaine Marchand's untitled three-part poem tries to live as regular a life as is possible: "I just want to get on with the little time/that remains, be fully alive-sick and sexual". Finally, perhaps echoing a sentiment felt by many who have been affected by AIDS, Jill Battson closes "Greg again with no closure" with the line, "I am seeking closure."
While one of the mandates of Insomniac Press has been to merge visual media with text, the results in the past have tended to be rather muddied to the detriment of both. Written in the Skin is a marked departure from this pattern. The photography of Montrealer Jules de Niverville is tastefully presented, generally competent (sometimes excellent), and complements the text without encroaching on the poems themselves.
Gathering together a variety of voices on a subject as poignant as AIDS is understandable and perhaps even laudable. The editing, however, should have been sharper. Deleting half of the poems would have made for a much more powerful testament. This is a good book to pick up, provided the reader is patient enough to pick through a lot of gravel. Those with less patience might consider picking away in another pile.
Tymothi: J is a writer living in Toronto.