According to Chekhov, the listening ear of a horse is receptive to confession, even to the most woebegone among us — especially in cases where humans won’t listen. In his story “Misery,” a cabby, grief-stricken by the death of his son, can’t find sympathy among his passengers; he finds his waiting mare the only open ear. As he talks, the mare listens, flakes of wet snow falling around them. In her remarkable new book of poems, I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, Johanna Skibsrud has a confession.
She trusts that human ears will listen to her, regardless of the woe of her tale, and that her tone, so conversational it belies the urgency of what she’s saying, will be irresistible. Indeed, her conversational style is one of Skibsrud’s signature traits. Her poems tend to commence quietly, and they slowly wade into deep water before the reader notices that his feet no longer touch the ground.
Skibsrud begins her story on a boat with friends, where her sailor’s instincts teach her about nearness and distance, trust and mistrust, the need to listen to voices heard across water. She has had an epiphany, the exact nature of which is just out of reach, at least for the reader. Her poems don’t resolve the epiphany—it’s too ambiguous— but the numinous image informs, or infuses, her life, a process she chronicles in her poems.
I want always to
live as I lived on board that boat.
To be, always, like this: tired when I sleep,
hungry when I sit to eat, and when I love I want to love
as recklessly as this: when I’ve been,
in my loneliness, desiring,
I want to recollect my moments in their wholeness,
without neglecting to possess them, truly, first.
Skibsrud then circles around and above this event, following the ripples it sends through her consciousness. She meanders into her mind and into her life, going back to the beginning and beyond, laying down the entelechy she so finely imbeds in her story.
It is so intricate, all of it; there are so many parts,
and each one is so separate and so
beautiful that it is startling
to find it out again, and then over again…
Skibsrud’s poetics are, in large part, predicated on the revelations of phenomenology. She understands that naming is a creative act, and that poetry is the establishment of being by means of the word. Her intelligence thus permits her to search for this notion in the language of experience, though she knows that much of what she needs to say is unsayable. But she persists in pursuing “that further extension of the self where the line of thought is at once / pulled taut and left to buzz at the end of its wire….” The brightness of being, Heidegger wrote, “drives the poet into the dark.” Skibsrud understands that the self contains an animal, too; that a bear, for instance, is one of the multiplicity of selves with which she can test herself, emotionally and physically. In the book’s title poem, she assumes a bear-self, knowing she would then be superior to the pain, say, of losing a lover. “I would be a great bear. I would / go rumbling through. // I would try to eat you. I would stand alone, / in the quiet centre of you, and roar.” But she’s felt the pain of lost love—its scar adorns her—and knows in her heart that she’s not an animal, but a vulnerable human.
This book is not one long poem; neither is it a collection of separate poems. It’s the graph of a sensibility, and as such it utilizes unconventional principles of organization. Skibsrud tells her story in such a way that the reader is left to collect its parts as a bundle, like sticks for kindling. She tells us everything, dark and light, but even then we never know enough to reduce her story to its component parts. While the shifting and open-ended nature of this book makes it resistant to final interpretation, there is one thing that can definitively be said of Johanna Skibsrud: her confession is worth the ear of man, woman, child — and horse.
I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being will be launched at the Arts Café, 201 Fairmount Ave. W., on April 15th at 7:30 p.m.
Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.