Online Edition: Winter 2005/2006

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Political Cactus Poems

Jonathan Skinner

Palm Press ($15.95)

by Francis Raven

Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems is a slim but relatively ambitious contribution to the field of contemporary experimental ecopoetics, a field for whose resurgence Skinner's journal Ecopoetics ("dedicated to exploring creative-critical edges between making and ecology") is largely responsible. Skinner's poetry is an ecopoetics for this new century, in that it is firmly rooted in our current world, while using many strategies in the tradition of experimental ecopoetics. It is an ecopoetics that knows traditional nature poetry will not get us closer to the natural world.

One of the most innovative pieces in the book could not be presented fully in the book format. "Little Dictionary of Sounds" consists of poems "written as echoes to sounds, recorded around Western New York, Southern Ontario and on the Normandy coast." The resulting pieces are included in Skinner's volume but the original sounds are not. However, they are available at his publisher's website (www.palmpress.org) where they are embedded as Quicktime files in the pdf of the poems. It is a form that will surely catch on in the experimental poetry world. Using this technology, poems can talk against themselves, communicate with other sounds, or have individual soundtracks. The poems themselves are crystalline examples of an almost objectivist mode, as in "Fall": "vinyl cooking is worn / in periodic waves with slips / circadian zone attunes rain / one final night of rest."

The question arising from many of Skinner's pieces is the role sublexicons play in experimental poetics. He uses the Latin names of plants and other technical words drawn from science in his poems. Some of these words can be easily investigated and are equivalent to any difficult words a poem has to offer. That is, they can be looked up, pinned down, etc. But other words in his poems, such as the Latin names of the cacti in particular, cannot be investigated in the same way. They give the poems a certain look and feel of science, they allow the poet to dig into the etymology of these words and riff off of their surfaces. They allow the poems to more easily slip from literal meaning, something which all poems must do, but they also don't push the poems forward. As such, they should be used sparingly as Skinner does.

The title sequence consists of more than two dozen poems about cacti and accompanying digitally altered photographs of mixed media cactus sculptures by Skinner's wife, the sculptor Isabelle Pelissier. While individually the Political Cactus Poems work well, their gimmick (or methodology) is quickly learned. According to Skinner, "The Political Cactus Poems were written using Clive Inness and Charles Glass's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Cacti and riffing off the Latin binomial names plus the description of the cacti, mixing in current events along with my own knowledge of desert ecology." It's an interesting technique, but the gambit goes on for too long. Still, Skinner's deftness in waving together different modes of writing is an overall strength of both the Political Cactus Poems and the volume as a whole, and will hopefully lead to further ecopoetics from Skinner and others.


To Purchase Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems, please click here.