Review of Dennis Hinrichsen’s Skin Music

Managing Editor’s Note: This post features a review of poems exploring the nature of disaster, of suffering, of death. In his reading of Dennis Hinrichsen’s Skin Music, Kevin Holton discovers structure and free-form poetry that confronts and recognizes the desolate nature of catastrophe, yet finds both beauty and hope within the experience. As Holton writes, “its characters don’t blink or hesitate, as they recognize the way mortality balances mankind against its own tendency toward destruction.”

–Amy Grier

Review of Dennis Hinrichsen’s Skin Music.

Evansville: Southern Indiana Review Press, 2015.

by Kevin Holton

A book of poetry, more than a book in any other genre, has the unique power to switch from topic to topic, spanning continents and eons if the writer wishes, to capture a wide array of experiences. Skin Music, by Dennis Hinrichsen, does this well. With poems approaching the dying of fellow poet Paul Celan to an unnamed narrator catching catfish, Hinrichsen uses elegance and elegy to blend good tidings and grave misfortune, crafting an impressive collection.

This much is evident from the opening piece, “Variations on the Death by Drowning of the Poet, Paul Celan.” Working with a free-form structure, he throws a scattered array of evocative terms onto the page, separating each by an expanse of white. Some thoughts are fragmented, but with clear connotations, such as “in honor of urns,” while others are whole ideas, yet shrouded in mystery, as with “(now it is raining/ in all the rooms).” This has the odd effect of gazing at something familiar through a heavy mist, seeming simultaneously defined yet unknowable.A few poems approach death far more clearly, like “Okinawa Dog,” which is addressed to the canine companion of a soldier dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “I know/ it is not easy dying,” Hinrichsen writes, adding, “There is a bed, I know, carved/ from the heart of a tree.” This ends with a photograph of a young Japanese soldier who had committed suicide. He writes, “We/ stared at it a long time/ before he turned it over/ and—because you were still/ alive—petted your neck, rambled off a buddy’s/ name… Then, not one tear.” The narrative of this poem does an excellent job of capturing the isolation of someone who remains haunted by the violence of war.

“Flood” takes on a more optimistic tone. It deals with another serious topic—a city devastated by the Iowa flood of 2008, called “Iowa’s Katrina” by those who experienced it. This poem has an air of waiting, and knowing that life will get better, as Hinrichsen writes, “Ah, Atlantis–/ already I’m forgetting your raw papyrus.” There is a stark feeling to this piece as it evokes the desolation these events leave behind, showing that both our possessions, and that which takes them from us, are impermanent.

“Train Stopped Along an Embankment” is another poem that finds meaning in destruction, opening with, “If time everlasting is the final gesture/ and we, sometimes without our bodies,/ its careless servant,/ then darkness will be its own good end,/ and the cooling down/ a thing vital to the next shift in matter.” This is more directly about death than the others in this collection, and far from being about simply dying, it seeks to emulate the decay all beings experience afterward as their bodies surrender to the elements.

Perhaps the most impactful poem is “Burn Ward,” which features the narrator looking through observation windows at a man severely burned in a fire. “What did I know then of the resurrection through/ metal?” he writes, briefly touching on a neo-gothic sentiment, calling Frankenstein to mind before continuing. “They’d peel/ away his clothes, that fine webbing of synthetic/ and arm… The nurses’ bodies/ through the Demerol/ like raw angels.” Through this, there is a literal peeling away of the burned man’s skin, yet the narrator also endeavors to remove a spiritual veil, offering glimpses into the afterlife that awaits the burn victim. This poem shows all sides of such an injury: the quiet suffering of the wounded, the agonized waiting of the unharmed observer, and the methodical ministrations of his caretakers, a balance not often achieved.

However, some of the longer poems falter. “Landscape with Desert and River,” for instance, features evocative imagery at the cost of the poem’s narrative arc. “Ice thickens, as cold drives/ blood from my hands,” Hinrichsen writes. “I feel the crippling touch/ of dusk,/ Scudera hatching in the west.” These images blur together and fail to conjure any true story; the poem feels like a half-complete still life painting, where the artist has rendered a background, but refuses to paint the subject.

“Minotaur” suffers from the opposite problem, for the same reason. This poem is full of fragmented ideas that, while telling a story, become disorienting, switching between a concrete description of events and a dissociated confusion. The poem begins clearly, describing his uncle as “retarded—that’s what we called it then.” Yet, that section ends with, “boy child, idiot/ uncle, Minotaur,/ blue baby…/ Why.” Another section begins with “cell for cell our own body?” This idea doesn’t appear connected to anything, instead floating, offering a glimpse at what could have been an interesting, engaging subject that has instead become annoyingly vague.

A few poems notwithstanding, Skin Music is a well-crafted book that emphasizes embracing the natural world. Even when facing death, its characters don’t blink or hesitate, as they recognize the way mortality balances mankind against its own tendency toward destruction. These poems are an engaging blend of sensitivity and strength that confront this, yet, with calm grace, accept it.