‘SkinNotes’ – say it aloud. Like poetry, and Kristen Lang’s poetry in particular, this is a title that springs into life when it’s read out loud. Do you read it slowly, enunciating each word, separated, as they are, by the capital N of ‘Notes’. Or do you run the words together with a slight trip on the second ‘n’? When I do this, the words begin to bounce and fall apart. I think of ‘denotes’ and reflect on symbolic language and what the poems might suggest about skin and the deeper notes below it. Then I notice the ‘kin’ nestling between that slippery ‘s’ and the firm ‘n’, and am startled once again by the subtly of Lang’s use of language; for these poems are indeed about kin – connections of blood and belonging – not just to a human family but also to animals, elemental forces, the earth. All this makes Kristen Lang’s SkinNotes a rich text, well worth an ecopoetical reading.
SkinNotes is divided into four sections, each taking a slightly different perspective on human connection or kinship, and spanning the breadth of how we experience it - from the intuitions of skin to front of brain ‘noting’ or reflection. The first section, ‘Blood harmonies’ begins where, perhaps, our conscious awareness of connection with others begins: in family relationships – between parents, grandparents, children; and extending to ‘[b]ecoming an aunt’ (22), siblings, husband and wife; and, notably, pets. The second poem, ‘Family album’ (7) draws all these, and more, elements of family together. Here readers may note the inclusion of the ‘Pet’, ‘Place’, and yet more: the ‘Dead’ and ‘Stranger’. The presence of such elements is testament to the breadth and depth of Lang’s thinking, that she is able to knit such diversity into a rich portrayal of what it is to be human, both as an individual and as one within a vast network of others, a community that is both human and nonhuman.
Section two, ‘The fragile mind’, goes straight to the heart of how this spider-web fine network of communion comes into being. It explores the fragile threads that bridge the spaces between mind and world, and the delicate mystery of life itself. Alongside poems like ‘The small house of her body’, which tells of the grave illness of a child (40-43), are, again, poems about the nonhuman world – ‘Vigil’ for a dog (57), and ‘Lake’, in which the waterbody becomes subject:
To passersby, you are the one emerging from the water – the lake dripping from your clothes, the woman not seeing, reaching into the air, as if she is yourself.
Lang, in this section, constantly dissolves the boundaries between human and nonhuman and emphasises physical and sensuous being as a means of communication between us and the world. The thinking mind comes well behind the feeling brain, and this is a physicality that Lang shows us we share with the nonhuman world –
She is the nest some cuckoo has taken, the chick already hatched, wet still and calling, calling under the house.
Section three of Lang’s volume, ‘Being here’, resonates with Hamlet’s eternal ‘to be’. It nudges these themes further, asking what is it to be human, or to be what we are? Lang subtly takes esoteric thought down a notch, and brings us back to earth, reminding us of the simple miracle of ordinary existence. In Lang’s hands, angels become, wonderfully, horses:
How the angels are not ourselves. We dress them. We change the angle of their wings, the whiteness of their frocks, but whether they move in us or refuse to move … It is possible they are here and we do not notice. There is a horse in the field beside our house.
Another poem in this section, ‘The stronger light’, has an especially lightning-like earthing power. It contrasts living and death startlingly:
You will say that the cadaver … is a clock of change, for it cools, stiffens, bloats … … we are climbing … Stone curves in my flesh, roots into veins, the leaves humming in my lungs, rubbing at the lists of time … … indeed we name it in the margin of our measures: the caught, the fleeting, the stronger light. These hours. The cadaver lends us his eyes.
The prose poem ‘Dear body’ brings us back to the mind, but again underscores the importance of the physical body as a cradle for any mindful awareness of being:
And Body, please, as well, that single / thought, let me carry it, let me run with it, roll with it, in the / wide fields of the skull, this thought that cannot breathe / without you. (78)
The last section of SkinNotes, ‘The heart’ excavates the languages of feeling and love. It completes a circle through which the volume returns from foregrounding individual experience, to reflecting on the connections between us. The opening poem, ‘To say I believe in you’ depicts such connection with delicious quirkiness (91). Two people, whether lovers or mother and daughter, perhaps, become prairie dog-like, bobbing in and out of subway entrances. Again the nonhuman world is harnessed for metaphorical uses, but in Lang’s hands it becomes more than an adjunct to the human, rather those two people, surrounded by the city, move closer to it – they become ‘tree bugs’, ‘tectonic plates’ (91). Finally, majestically, Lang fuses, in the poem, the thinking and the physical ‘blood’ of human existence, into one who is not just an individual person, but two people, intrinsically, inseparably connected:
You’re right under me. You’re beside me. You’re all through me. I’m …
Sometimes the parties Lang connects become ambiguous. Primed by what has come before, a reader begins to hesitate in assigning anthropomorphic values to language. In ‘Finding you’, for example, we might typically read the following as though it is a metaphor for human lovers. In Lang’s hands, however, sand and water are returned to being just themselves; yet readers have now been given a rare power to profoundly recognise their intrinsic being as objects not necessarily contingent on human subjectivity.
Your sand rolls over buried stones, fragments of broken shell, my crumpled waves finding you, arms reaching out
SkinNotes is a wonderful book. It really does nudge the boundaries of language and perception; in this way is has almost shamanic qualities. It might very well herald an epistemological shift into a different way of looking at humanity’s place within a vast, beyond-human world. It is also full of rich and tender observations and detailed nuances. In ways that remind me of Virginia Woolf’s writing, Lang seems to offer such an accurate portrayal of humans and the world that encloses them, that much will always remain to reward future reading and re-reading.
Kristen Lang. SkinNotes. North Hobart: Walleah Press, 2017. ISBN:9781877010774