We move from skin to skin, sloughing ourselves in the pursuit of something resilient and strange.
That human beings crawl out of skins is no foreign concept to folk of the Caribbean. So too for the mythos at the heart of Hester J. Rook’s “Sealskinned, Crowned”, which immediately conjures associations of selkie culture. The poem’s speaker, who describes their skin as “misshapen from disuse / stretched and constricted / all at the same time: / a snakeskin left too long in the grass”, is in the throes of a transformation. The poem begins with starkly action-fuelled language: there is the immersive symbolism of the speaker, pouring themselves “full and thick / like the syrup left from poaching pears”.
I hearken to poems that highlight the body as transport, and I pay attention to poems that preoccupy themselves with the limits of that transport as alchemy. Rook’s poem does both. See how the speaker laments the skin’s suboptimal condition, yet purposes it anyway for another journey. Their talismans are “garlands of feathers”, their surgical thread is “roughened shell shard splinters”.
In this world, the poet presents us with a speaker whose awareness of their physical limitations is lifted and lilted with objects of beauty and best purpose. This adornment and alteration – making sure the skin can be of service, can surround safely, bedecked with an avian crown – is nothing short of what we do in ‘the real world’. Surgery: isn’t that the scientific speculation that the wounded body might yet persist, that crushed limbs can be uncrushed, that a shattered face can be removed and replaced with the face of another?
Back into the sea our speaker goes, freshly restitched and feathered, ready to be “flooded, familiar”. See their skin shine amid the sargasso. Count the trail of kingfisher plumes they leave on the shore.
This is the twenty-first installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.