Walleah Press, 2017.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Kristen Lang’s deftly-crafted poetry collection, SkinNotes, scrawls its emotive verse across the skin of the self. It is not indelible ink and it would not matter if it were, as the body is transient just as the words we wield, weave, and write exist only for a brief time.
Lang’s work is concerned with the beauty and richness of the accumulation of the transient words we utter, or leave unuttered, in our daily lives. This is a poetry of the here and now, present in soul or spirit, and encased in the warm contours of a breathing body. In Hebrew, “breath” and “spirit” are the same word and, for Lang, the words we exhale and the love we inhale form the essence of our souls.
But expression is more than words and it often runs below utterance: what we say to our loved ones is “webbed under words, across rooms, between years” (“The knit” 6). We stockpile years like sandbags against the flood, all the while conscious that each year leads us closer to death. Lang describes the self, so fragile, enmeshed in its corporeal tangle of flesh and veins, as “The chemical stutter of strung-together bone / through the doubt-bitten visions of the heart” (“Family album” 7). The heart is, as it were, the heart of the matter for Lang. And the heart is inextricably entangled with the lungs.
Breath and words, life and death, soul and body: all are one in Lang’s vision. “The Dead,” as she writes, are present still in “the emptying of their lungs into our breath” (7). The life-force is not only human but also exists in the animals and the land; as Lang reminds us, a pet is “heart-sized compensation / for the wide sweep of the unremitting sky” (7), while “place” is where “We have rubbed the soil into our foot soles / and our arms hold the thrumming of the wind” (7). The word “thrum” works perfectly here, as our limbs vibrate with life and hum with the tension of the desire to capture all, to hold the wind that stirs our souls.
This writing then, is a shared poetics. It is not about Lang. It is about the self that is our birthright and the truths that bind us all together in our collective experience of this world and this life. The poet is Everyman and “place” is country: our land, to which we are bonded through our foot soles and heart souls. This poetry belongs to everyone and everywhere.
In “Fear-slash-elation,” Lang speaks of the longing to be universal and personal at once, of “Wanting, not to be loved, not, either, / to love, but to be / love, to find it / tucked up in the heart…” (8). To be love, as Lang imagines, would mean being “what it is / that makes the difference” (8). Love makes us human. It is a tired saying but not a trite one and its truth fits like the rightness of the hollow nestle-carved into a matrimonial mattress by a pair of aging lovers.
Love is in the spirit and the spirit is in the breath. In this way, an unnamed loved one is addressed with the words: “You are still here in the inhale” (“Holding” 9). Again, Lang describes an experience so personal to her that the “you” remains anonymous — in the intimacy of the moment, there is no need to name the object of love as they know who they are — and, yet, the very act of unnaming makes the poetry stand for the experience of all those who have loved in all ages and in all places.
That which is deeply personal to the poet speaks of universal truths so that Lang’s experience becomes particular to other selves. We know ourselves to be in the moment Lang describes– even as we are excluded from its intimacy — as we have all breathed in the wonder of human love. The paradox is that, in writing of herself, Lang writes for us. She voices our lives so that the reader of her poetry will feel the jolt of the familiar as they recognise their own experiences in the words on the page.
Lang’s poetry expresses a life-giving love through a life-given wisdom. This is wisdom gained from experience: “the rub of years” (“Alignment” 12) that lends a reflective sheen to a life. What is a human life if not a series of departures? In “Goodbye is too small a word,” two parting lovers climb a hill together and, at the summit, “lean into the hollows of each others’ hearts” (107). The final stanza is a crescendo of the themes of both this poem and the collection as a whole:
we cannot climb again,
we pull away — that small
at the tips of our fingers,
in our forearms,
its web in our chests,
a fracture in our lungs. (107)
Each short line is a brief breath exhaled to the rhythms of departure. And so, for Lang, the heart and lungs together form the cadence of existence.
The five-line poem “She loves me, he loves me not” again encapsulates the universal human experience of love and loss, the tick and tock of time, and it deserves to be quoted in full:
The heart: a small
apparatus for plucking
time — tiny but
lavish blooms, petal
by petal. (106)
Blooms, stones, bones, skin, and water are the images that recur most frequently aside from the heart and lungs in these wonderful poems that reward the reader with every re-reading.
It is difficult to choose a quotation from “Skin whispers, a poem in 2 voices” (101) that would do justice to this triumph of a poem. It is a thought-conversation between two souls who love one another like stones caught at the confluence of two mighty rivers, the currents of love and life flowing strongly onwards towards the ocean. The gorgeous images ebb and flow as the two voices merge at three points to speak in harmony:
I love you.
This poem is the highlight of this collection and I hope it will be read widely and aloud in its lovely cadences. “Though we have only just met” (32) is another joy to be found among these pages as it describes a loving moment in fullest detail, when a two-year-old boy bestows a brief embrace and the life of the loved one culminates in that moment.
Kristen Lang is an urgent poetic voice singing a salutation of love, recognising her kin in the breathing and beating of the souls and hearts around her. The triumph of this collection is that it holds in its tight clutch of imagery and themes so much variance, so many truths, so much nuance. This is a fresh, dynamic poetry for the reader to return to again and again.