Richard Skinner – Terrace
Smokestack Books, 2015 £4.99

The Thingness of Things

Sometimes there’s nothing apparently poetic about a poem, but it just is. Poetry, I mean. For example, ‘My grandmother’s things’. Here are the first two lines:

A brown bakelite telephone
with separate handpiece, Leicester 58803.

I don’t know why this is potent, but for me it is. Indubitably. And I find it interesting that other poems in the pamphlet featuring more abstract nouns do not, to my mind, work so well. Alluring phrases like ‘Birth becomes wrath’, for example, or ‘the footfall of probable futures’ – these glide past pleasurably – but give me the bakelite telephone any day.

‘Death in a French Garden’ is another piece that centres on things, and it’s done with loving precision, held together by that gorgeous title.

Valerian and camphor baths,
Vichy, Seltzer, Barège waters,
Raspail patent medicine,
Regnault paste,
Darcet lozenges.

I don’t want to give the impression that Richard Skinner just creates lists. He does far more than that. Even the lists are not just lists.

And occasionally – at his best, as they say – he can make the move from precise thing-ness into a totally abstract line, and it’s magnificent.

One of my favourites is ‘Indoor Pallor’. Colour is significant here – and already a hint of this in the title, of course. The poet opens with a visual picture, a crystal clear: ‘You sip your mint tea while I study your profile: / the imperious nose, the predatory eye.’

The picture and the person are as clear as day. The poet continues:

You discard your tea. I used to wonder why
the sea was blue in the distance, yet green close up,
and colourless in my hands.

I don’t yet see the connection yet between the tea, the person, and the sea, but I trust this poet because of his precision and clarity. Besides, he is right about the mystery, the way expanses of water change colour. Why do they?

Then he takes the Big risk and switches into a totally abstract line. And it works:

A lot in life is learning to like blue.

What a line! And there is a connection between the blue and the tea. You should read this poem, you really should.