Succulent Politics

Political Cactus Poems by Jonathan Skinner. Palm Press, 2006. $12. 103 pp. Reviewed by Amy Newlove Schroeder.

"The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things," Wallace Stevens remarks. "In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of the imagination." As we know, Stevens wrote little, if any, political poetry; he didn't believe in the efficacy of mixing high art with the unpleasantness of base atrocity. In this quotation, he points to the tendency of "real" events to overwhelm the acts of the imagination, swallowing the delicate insistencies of lyric into a great, blood-red maw of artless horror. While we may feel frustrated by Steven's modernist elitism, he points to an undeniable truth: It is extraordinarily difficult to write good political poetry. The pressure to adhere to reality, the feeling that one's poem cannot be possibly be as important as the "facts," can cripple even the most skilled of poets. Moreover, political poetry all too often tends toward self-righteous preaching, where the poet adopts the unambiguous position of moral judge and jury. It is a poetic terrain mined with obstacles, pun intended.

These considerations make Jonathan Skinner's debut volume seem to be even more a feat: It is an overly political work that succeeds, for the most part, both as a collection of poems and as a work of resistance and subversion. Skinner points us in a million directions at once, which is hardly surprising given that Skinner edits the journal Ecopoetics.  Interconnectivity and the threats to such connectivity are some of Skinner's chief subjects; he alerts us to this in the very first poem: "an exploding quasar…fills telescopes for less than one second…and falls with our faces receding / light points, crowding our darkness." We're all in it together, in other words, we're all illuminated by the light of the same dying sun.

And what does the light from that sun reveal? Skinner's quirky humor and light touch rest lightly upon the distressing events he writes about - war, terrorism, radiation, politics. But do not let the lightness of tone obscure Skinner's seriousness; like O'Hara, like Koch, even when this poet appears to be kidding around, he's not really kidding. One must get past the faint ridiculousness of the title, and see past Skinner's jocularity to the fact that he does not balk at alluding to or commenting on some of the most difficult of our modern problems.  Skinner, it seems, would most likely disagree with Steven's notion that the imagination quails in the face of reality. "[W]hat came over us," he asks, "when the peculiar monstrose form / reached the White House."

Skinner's mastery is most obvious in the title sequence, the spiny, prickly, beautiful heart of this collection. Each poem takes for its title the Latin name of a cactus; the poem is then punningly drawn from or connected to the name and appearance of that cactus. "Ancistrocactus Crassihamatus," for example, begins thus: "Hamas then critters / a crass kind of lover." These poems jerk and bounce from image to idea; they are often hilarious. One of the most successful examples of this is "Aporocactus Martianus," which asks, in deadpan tone, "Is the President from Mars?" Elsewhere, in a poem titled "Borzoicactus Nanus," he writes "a dwarf on a borzoi / stuffs a nan up my ass."

Some of the "Political Cactus Poems" seem rather schematic in their shape - they open with a witticism drawn from the title, and then the poem evolves to a more lyrical, more lovely conclusion. For example:

                 our days are long

                 the sun disappears

                 behind a fog bank

                 without your flashy

                 crimson flowers

One way to read this is in the contrast of man to nature - human is ugly and funny-awful, and nature is beautiful and transcendent. However, this may be a bit reductive - particularly in light of the collection's concluding poems, which seem to point to a more hopeful prospect for the union of man and plant. "Eriocereus Jusberti" is a kind of cactus love poem. Skinner writes:

                 I stroke your yellow

                 felt-covered aureoles

                 your dark-brown, radial spine

                 I take your cuttings

                 and propagate you

The possibility of love and reproduction - even if it is difficult and painful - means the possibility that the world will not end. While Skinner never directly addresses the metaphorical implications of cacti, they are, I think, obvious enough - like the world we live in, human beings are all prickly on the outside, hard to get close to. But on the inside, however, we are all alike, made of soft flesh, pulpy and succulent. And above all, we are all in need of propagation, cultivation and care, so that we can live in peaceable union with all members of our ecology, even ones that hold the potential to harm us.