Fort Not   by Emily Skillings   The Song Cave , 128 pages, October 1, 2017

Fort Not

by Emily Skillings

The Song Cave, 128 pages, October 1, 2017

 

REVIEWED BY VALERIE DUFF-STRAUTMANN

In Fort Not, Emily Skillings turns first imperceptible and later thundering self-conscious moments into rapid leaps in thought, line-to-line and often word-to-word. Her poems build on synaptic charge rather than rational or linear trains of thought, and the strength of this collection lies in how often Skillings’ poems make the right jump, hit the right note, and convince us of the connections between her speaker’s subjective quirks and a more universal experience.

Or sometimes the choice she makes creates a dissonance so great that she forces a response (one of the few poem titles with an I exemplifies this dissonance: “I Love Wiping My Hands on Other People’s Dirty Things”). In calling attention to herself, Skillings is illuminated, yet she is always nodding to the reader from behind the curtain: I am here to corral or unleash the chaos. Sometimes she simply pops into the poem to remind us what’s at stake, as in the story that unfolds in “The Four Causes”:

 

Unfolding drama: A girl or speck goes to a pool

or amphitheater. Girl or speck is the material

or matter. An amphitheater or pool is the form

or shape the material or matter enters. Human

uncertainty is the end. Stain is the effect

 

that finishes it. Did I remember that correctly?

The pre-owned, gently used shelves reverberate

with historical sound. It gets all unsung, enormous.

If I could be unbuttoned, it could be moments ago

when I am all out of the brass in myself.

 

The unfolding consciousness in these poems, occasionally narrative though more often associative, comes to an abrupt halt when Skilings begins to second guess; these jolts are pleasing. It’s hard not to be won over by the brass of this voice. Her lines move confidently and conversationally before surprising us with a new register of language or point of reference:

 

There are so many paintings of Lucretia

stabbing herself and they’re all

pretty terrific. My personal favorites

are the ones where she looks bored (Rembrandt,

Parmigianino, Sellaer, Cranach

the Elder) like she’s just sticking

a casual reminder

between her tits that life is suffering,

and a certain quota of daily blood

is needed for a decant into that ancient

ceremonial chalice of feminine shame…

("Matron of No" )

 

Here are clear feelings about the historical domination of women, and (as the poem goes on) the ways in which Lucretia's story is played out daily (all women, on some level, Skillings implies, are like powerful and helpless Lucretia). It’s not just the moments in which Skillings speaks in the poems that become sharpened around the I, but in the small flashes of herself that surprise even Skillings we are most drawn into her world: “caught in my phone’s own beam / is my greasy face” (“Matron of No”). These moments are captured and  heightened by the technology of the twenty-first century that finds itself completely at home in Skillings’ verse.  

The I is shattered, as we all truly are, more than ever. In "Girls Online," Skillings imagines the ether in which we also exist: "The first line is a row of girls, / twenty-five of them, almost / a painting, shoulders overlapping." This is the new fractured reality: "One says, I'm myself here." She is looking at reality through a series of perspectives, all of which are relative. So when she speaks through the voice of a dead Victorian author, we know the question is pertinent to Skillings' own work:

 

    Am I the furniture,

    or the pattern,

    resting plaintively, on it?

        (“Emily Bronte’s Last Words”)

 

The enigma of the new reality is part of the draw. “Fort Not” invites a cluster of associations: the title, ostensibly drawn from the Laura Riding Jackson epigraph that starts the book (in which "poet" and poetry "is a wall that closes and does not") gets its play against “Fort Something,” another poem in the collection; the idea of fortnight lingers (there are two poems titled “Fort Not” in the collection, not spaced 14 pages apart, however); also Fort Knot, Fort Knox, Fort Naught. These associative tendrils spring from each carefully chosen word and create room for each other; the idea of a fort not is an edifice with nothing insideyet somehow, it holds.

In the same way, Skillings acknowledges and dismisses dichotomies. In “Fort Not” (the second version), she transcends gender binaries by becoming a war machine:

 

    The gender I wanted to become

    was actually more of an arm

    movement--simultaneously

    strong, accurate, elegant, lilting

 

    and weaponized.


Underlying it all, the reader feels Skillings’ dedication to experiment and hybrid; she revels in transformation. In “Parts of a World” for painter Jane Freilicher, single stanzas hang in exhibition on each page. “The Banks” works against the structure of the typed line. The mood in a Skillings poem can feel post postmodern:

 

    here spat my punk ancestor

    and to the writers listed below I dedicate my vast

    natural shapes, unnatural ones

    just a little break here

    no reason

    you don’t need any reason

 

There’s a danger here that the meaning gets lost in the meaninglessness, or that the music will die in her easy familiarity, but Skillings finds a way to make it work in the music of repetitions (less a music than a beat, but of course the beat is music), and in the networking of the image:

 

    “I feel the same’ in response to a confession, but mistype

    “I feel the sand.” Sunburned on a stupid beach of zero ideas.

 

    A logic grows, a white chrysanthemum.

    It becomes very intense and external, like opera.

            (“Daything”)


When she says “I feel a nessness” (“Bay”), we feel it, toowhether liveliness, wildness, unruliness, expansivenesswhether she is building her buildings on a negative, as in “Fort Not,” or through an accretion, as in "Flower Chamber" (in which there is a placard: "It read: Here, Right Here/Nowhere Else/Underneath and Above/This Building/Apartment Building Building/Building Avenue/Building Area, Still Building//Building Building Building//Building Building"), Skillings implicates us in the construction.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s reviews have appeared recently in Salamander, The Critical Flame, and The Boston Globe. She recently held fellowships at the VCCA and Writers’ Room of Boston. Her book of poems is To the New World (Salmon Poetry), and she is Poetry Editor of Salamander Magazine.