Circe's Island


Judith Skillman

Circe's Island

Silverfish Review Press

In Judy Skillman’s sixth book, Circe’s Island, one can see the knobs of the telescope turning, the images coalescing, the focus becoming clearer. With ever more attention to accuracy in metaphor, she builds new windows, then opens them wide, inviting the reader through.

She reaches a moody crescendo with the last two poems in the second of three sections, in "Horsetails" and "Foxglove," which, like many others in the collection, show her knowledge about and interest in the natural world. She approaches her subjects with a scientist’s eye. She describes, for example,

too ancient to fly away,
chickens with tiny wings
fastened like a cramp to their sides.
(“The Duty of Ideas”)

But unlike those poets who take refuge in the natural world for fear of describing human foibles, she writes just as insightfully about the built environment, including human relationships:

The slabs we fashion
are of necessity awkward, rude
as those places in cities
seen only from trains.
(“Hand Building”)

Towards the end of the poems in this vivid volume, Skillman’s images bump playfully against each other, making sense, but not too much, and leading the readers off to draw their own connections. In "Italian Plums," for instance, a contemplation of a still life of fruit in a colander veers off towards spawning salmon, guttering candles, Paris, breathable dust, and the breath of skiers. Yet the images nudge each other, like the feet of napping nursery schoolers.

She is playful in this book, even as her subject matter remains serious. In "On the Sabbath," describing her Jewish heritage and how it is in danger of waning from one generation to the next, she imagines someone saying "Baruch atah I don’t know," instead of "Baruch atah Adonai." Her musings on the fungus, "Witches Butter," puns around with "which is" and spreads and yellow analysis.

I was surprised to watch Skillman’s words acting like yeast for my own creative process—while reading her book, I found myself thinking of an unusual number of new snippets for a future poem, as if hers were contagious. I found reading the book gave me the kind of mental freedom usually found near the end of a long vacation, when one’s dreams and journal entries become longer, more complicated and more creative. It’s a rare reaction, and a symptom of the book’s artistry.

—Tina Kelley

Copyright © 2003 Tina Kelley.  All Rights Reserved.

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