A Skeleton’s Progress, Martin Kratz
Poetry Salzburg, 2018 £6.00
Skeleton Man stalks through every page of this pamphlet. He is both ‘us and ‘not-us’, sharing human feelings but stripped back, literally, to the bone. Separate and silent, his thoughts are interpreted by his companion — the ‘I’ of these poems — who knows him so well they could, at times, overlap. They might even, at times, be one person.
Does Skeleton Man have thoughts, emotions, needs, dreams? These are some of the questions the title poem explores, sometimes in direct questions and sometimes in the blurring of poet-narrator and the Skeleton. This poem is a sequence of fourteen sonnets (each is the perfect skeletal shape thanks to a visible break after the octet), with the narrator quizzing the Skeleton about his way of life —
Skeleton Man, why are you hunkered in the library stacks?
Around you, corpulent tomes bound in vellum.
You’re trying to address that feeling of emptiness.
The narrator also attempts to offer companionship and find answers to bridge the apparent gap between them and establish similarities:
Words feel nothing. And at the heart of you
is a true and tender marrow.
Some variety in formatting prevents any sense of predictability. Gradually Kratz moves into longer poems where line length mirrors Skeleton Man’s extended lonely travels. The narrator’s observing and questioning voice remains the same as Skeleton Man buys a motorbike and, in ‘a brand-new skin of leather / and a visor that’s like a real face / reflects the world back to itself.’ Here the surreal is close to reality — as close as the narrator and Skeleton Man, perhaps. When he’s caught speeding, the breathalyzer won’t respond and he’s ‘let off with a slap on the eight small wrist-bones.’
There’s a rich tradition behind this use of duality, from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Soul and Body’ poems, through Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’, up to contemporary creations of near-human avatars like John Agard’s The Coming of the Little Green Man. Kratz keeps the tradition moving forward, and his progress is lively and inventive.