Skin Music by Dennis Hinrichsen
Winner of the 2014 Michael Weaver Poetry Prize
Southern Indiana Review Press, 2015
74 pp., $14.95
One of the great pleasures of Dennis Hinrichsen’s award winning poetry collection, Skin Music, is watching the poet consider large questions and concepts while paying careful attention to the specific details of the world. The opening poem, “Variations on the Death by Drowning by the Poet Paul Celan,” starts with an almost professorial tone: “The heart in drowning must not be…” as if we were at an anatomy and physiology lecture, but the words that follow, “luminous/star-lit” move us into a more romantic realm which, in turn, is undercut by the next image—“but some porous leaf shape/knifing the current” and we’re back in a world in which the softness of “porous” co-exists with the violence of “knifing.” Such tonal shifts bring us up short making us pay attention, and Hinrichsen uses them to good effect throughout this collection. In, “Landscape with Desert and River,” for example, the speaker, with his acute eye, describes the riverbank, “New ice hangs from the roof of itself/and spikes/down—glacial, toothed—into the riverbed” (1-2) then, four stanzas later, observing the cold has drained blood from his hands, asks with an almost childlike curiosity “Where does it go—/the blood? How far backwards like vision/into the heart?” (14-16). Again and again the poet moves from observation to contemplation.
Hinrichsen uses this gift for imagery, this ability to look at any situation from both far away and close up, to enable us to join him in exploring difficult subjects, illness, mortality, painful relationships, from which we might otherwise avert our eyes and hearts .For example, the title poem, “Skin Music: A Memoir,” examines the consequences wrought by a pedophile neighbor. Painstakingly, the poet recreates the neighborhood and details the methods by which this predator wins the trust of first the adults and then the children:
In retrospect the strategies were astounding. For the adults first—win their hearts—the man built a horseshoe pit and badminton court in the schoolyard across the alley….Afterwards, gin and tonics, cigarettes, laughter, talk, 8 mm cartoons he sometimes ran backwards.
This man also builds a play yard for the children and lets them paint the side of his house with water: “This was hunting season, exquisite patience.” The consequences for the children are to be forever haunted by his “secret voice, part man, part boy or girl, like wet shoelace, double-looped, frozen. / No matter how you move, alone or in another’s arms, it won’t unknot.” The tension of this poem with its barely suppressed rage and embedded story of the sexual awakening of the speaker, too old to be a victim of the pedophile, would be unbearable but for Hinrichsen’s careful control of detail and tone.
This unflinching view is mixed with tenderness in poems such as “Every Coral Branch Supports the Moon,” “Boom Boom,” and “Minotaur.” The first two poems deal with dying, but “Every Coral Branch Supports the Moon,” is lyrical and elegiac using music as its opening metaphor:
There was a river in her head that kept flowing
and so she
at a piano built
“Boom Boom,” on the other hand, has a tougher tone. “It’s a shit deal, death, so we play/cards” reads the first line. The fast tumble of the poem’s enjambed lines, the honesty of its particulars—“…the thought just get up/ringing like a penny in a tin can, /so long he soils himself’—the wry manner in which the speaker depicts his relationship with the dying ex-Marine—“I think he likes me. /I’m a quick study, wiseass, good with/old men”—present mortality as a game to be played with spirit and a kind of humor although we know we’ll lose in the end. “Minotaur,” on the other hand, renders the complex relationship between the speaker and his uncle who is “retarded—that’s what we called it then.” As we enter the poem, the speaker, then nine years old, is in the men’s room at a movie theater repulsed by the scent of his uncle’s body and by the familial connection between them: “I could smell in it the drench of decaying skin cell, money, failure, honeyed ear wax, the genetic rubs that contained my mother (but not my father).” Yet the speaker cannot, does not want to, renounce their link forged in love solidified in family stories:
what they always told me
how when I was born they put
crooked body in his open arms
and he cooed my name.
Hinrichsen’s ability to control tone and image along with his willingness to both report and meditate on pivotal experiences left me feeling I had experienced something profound and mysterious, the harshness of life mitigated by the beauty of poetry.
Reviewed by Kathleen Aguero