The Malvern Aviator: Richard Skinner, Smokestack
Opening The Malvern Aviator, Richard Skinner’s new Smokestack pamphlet, the words ‘not for the faint-hearted’ came into my mind. For this is not an easy read: Skinner’s eclectic gathering of source material and his tangential approach to its significance at first left me wondering whether I was quite up to tackling the dense content and inventive structure of his poems.
If the opening poem, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ sets a theme for the next sixteen, it seems to be that we need mysticism in an era without religion, and that we depend on material symbolic structures and signs. The title of the poem comes from the mediaeval book of mysticism which inspired the Protestant sect the Lollards, who were persecuted in the reign of Richard III. Skinner’s poem describes a belief system as a finely constructed temple, built “on the dross of the land”, where “when we are slain,/we walk through a door/and enter the jardin.” And find ourselves alone, with only the images of birds “in a wish tree” and the sound of a bell, that ubiquitous element of religious ritual. The imagery is worthy of the Rubaiyat. The message is existential.
Skinner has several poems that build on this philosophy. ‘Bardo for Pablo’ asks how we can find a way through the accumulation of what we know, to reach our true feelings: “People don’t change, they only stand more nakedly revealed.”
‘Ardennes’ begins in description: we’re looking through a window at a rain-lashed landscape but after the first three lines the focus turns from the spatial world to the temporal. With the line “Mounds become pauses” the poem becomes an expression of the nature of the present moment and its character in a world of “the urge to elucidate, explain” which “kills the moment stone dead.”
Other poems are highly visual in their impact. ‘Corsican Ram Skull’ is a meticulously observed memento mori. The skull is described in micro and macro terms: “edges of eye sockets delicate frills/of milk teeth” and “growth lines a moraine/incrementally ascending a high col”. The final “frozen baa” is a surprise after the elegant references to nature.
‘Nightscape in grey/violet’ is another very particular image: a midnight vision of a townscape in moonlight. The ambience, and the precision and economy of the colour description, remind me of JM Whistler’s paintings of Battersea Bridge. ‘Via Fiora Oscuri’ is another, very different urban image, this time a sketch of Milan on May Day 2015, sewn with images of unrest and violence.
‘Cento’, referencing Antoine Saint-Exupèry’s Wind Sand and Stars, is a rich journey through stratosphere, space and time, remarkable for its kinetic and visual imagery: “All the stars are out now, revolving slowly, a whole sky marking the hour.” and the moon is “gleaming on the cold stone tiles of the sea…”
Then there are ekphrastic poems. In ‘Fabiola’ an installation of 300 similar portraits is a springboard for Skinner’s continued discussion of the relationship between perception and knowledge. Giacometti’s Head/Skull (1934) is the occasion of a playful cinquain.
Many of these poems are journeys on which we embark with Skinner, often from a starting point known only to the poet: we travel with him, enjoying the sights and sounds along the way, and with him arrive, sometimes at a destination that only he understands. ‘Black Water Side’ takes us from the inside of a mind (“a house full of people running through rooms/ looking for keys”) to the realisation that we can only deal with externals in life (“…naps/errands, routine”) leaving us at the acceptance that “You’ve nowhere else to go and you’re sure of it now/this is the wrong mountain.”
‘The Iris Gallery’ is a journey through images (dream? surreal painting? cinema?) that is highly enjoyable as long as we don’t insist upon asking why. Even in poems that seem to be about historical situations, (for example, ‘Dark Nook’ and ‘Eclipse, Salisbury Plain, 1903’) Skinner seems to withhold key information, leaving the reader with a mystery that they suspect even Google won’t be able to solve.
The last three poems in the collection, including the title poem, are obviously based in personal and family memory, as is ‘The Summer of Red Mercedes’. Perhaps for that reason I find them the most accessible, though not the strongest poems in the collection. ‘Chinese Apples’ is a story of how the poet’s mother’s experience as a young girl has created triggers to her senses through memory. ’The Astorians’ is an account of his grandparents’ relationship: the story flowers from the initial moment and the particular image of his grandfather’s saxophone playing, the narrative travelling forward and back in time throughout the poem.
This is a rich, varied and well-constructed collection based on Richard Skinner’s themes of time, memory and the relationship of material to spiritual life. The enigmatic nature of many of the poems is a function of his thesis and they are the more rewarding for that.