Judith Skillman holds a Masters in English Literature from the University of Maryland, and has taught at the University of Phoenix, Richard Hugo House, City University, and Yellow Wood Academy. She is the recipient of an Eric Mathieu King Fund Award from the Academy of American Poets for her book Storm (Blue Begonia Press), a King County Arts Commission (KCAC) Publication Prize, Public Arts Grant, and Washington State Arts Commission Writer’s Fellowship.

    A Jack Straw Writer in 2008 and 2013, Skillman has had her work nominated for Pushcart Prizes, the UK Kit Award, and Best of the Web. Her poems are also included in Best Indie Verse of New England.

Visit www.judithskillman.com

Poems have appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, New Poets of the American West, and other journals and anthologies. Her “how to,” Broken Lines—The Art & Craft of Poetry, was published in 2013. Skillman’s collaborative translations from French and Macedonian have appeared in Northwest Review, BEACONS, and Ezra. She has been a Writer in Residence at the Centrum Foundation in Port Townsend, Washington, and The Hedgebrook Foundation. At the Center for French Translation in Seneffe, Belgium, she translated Belgian-French poet Anne-Marie Derèse.


In House of Burnt Offerings Judith Skillman makes everyday life the province of  the tough questions she asks, and the lucid, restless, energetic and often stunning language that can surprise us with lines like “the sharp shears/ of our smiling teeth.” Her imagery ranges from windfall apples to Kafka and everywhere between. In what this poet calls her “solitary watch” readers will encounter the intelligence and honesty of the real thing.  --Brendan Galvin


House of Burnt Offerings reads like an incantation, alchemical arrangements of language that rouse a reader into new forms of wakefulness. Precise images embed themselves in the mind; fluid sequences evoke a multitude of emotional responses. Reading Skillman’s poems, I felt more acutely my own desire to be fully alive, the pressing realities of beauty and loss.
—John Amen, editor of The Pedestal Magazine


With contagious mood and relentless wisdom, House of Burnt Offerings is a black-magic mix of fire and ash, with smoke curling up to mourn, bear witness, and transform "the stink and blush//of remembrance" into a rallying cry. By drawing such careful, musical portraits of her ghosts, Skillman has created a triumph of survival to please the gods.

                                           --Tina Kelley, author of Precise



Few poets seize the natural world in the tender, particular ways that poet Judith Skillman does… For a poet who sees this world as does Skillman, nature’s beauty and cruelty is ours as well.--Chicago Sun-Times Book Review


House of Burnt Offerings threads strands of desire, loss, grief, and hope through daily rituals and yearly ceremonies, transforming ordinary life into a sacrament.


In this collection the house is the book and the poems are the offerings. The work contains elements of surrealism found in Trilce, and language in the poem “Die Kinder” echoes Vallejo’s stretched syntax. The epigraph for Part I, “We struggle to thread ourselves through the eye of a needle,/Face to face with the desires…” addresses the sadness inherent in desire—the difficult territory between want and satisfaction. Desire can become a wound or an abyss, as it does in “Kafka’s Wound” and “Mis en Abyme”. 


Part II navigates desire gone wrong, with the epigraph “Second degree burn/in desire’s every tender excrescence…” Here possible immoralities are explored. An “excrescence” is a lump or growth. “Hashimoto’s Disease” begins: “I dreamt a trunk/came down from the ceiling—/wrinkled and gray/as an elephant’s.”


Part III employs ceremony, dress, and costume as metaphors for protection, with the quote “Hope grieves between cotton.” In poems “Atonement” and “The Rustling,” cloth, calico, and seams are juxtaposed against the prickling of “The Succulents.” Centipedes, scorpions, and black widows are found in “The Courtyard.” Consolation may be rare in human interactions, and dangerous to seek in the wild. Yet it exists in nature’s organic forms—stars, flowers, plants, rivers. Ultimately, the mysteries of earth become the fruit, the flesh, the birth after burning.


REVIEW IN PEDESTAL MAGAZINE (9/15):


Reviewer: Ann Wehrman


“And, by the way, don’t worry about what a poem means. Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen. Meaning lives there in a field of powerful understanding before it ever makes its way to words or explanations.” —Joy Harjo

          What does it take to make magic, to create a functional potion, a sacrament, an incantation—or perhaps a powerful work of art? Any wizard worth his or her salt knows that casting an effective spell requires certain ingredients; no substitutions, no cheaper goods, will work. An olive will never replace eye of newt, it simply will not suffice. In her 2015 collection, House of Burnt Offerings, Judith Skillman creates wizardry with words, and as Skillman is a highly skilled poet, not just any words will do. Skillman bends and breaks standard syntax and meaning as she employs impressive vocabulary, narrative, and imagery for her own purposes, mining the hidden regions of dreams, myth, culture, and memory. She mixes a sliver of pain, a kernel of tenderness, a twist of satire, perversity, and bitterness, creating from it all a potent sauce of raw truth.

          “Wand” celebrates the beauty of imperfection, the bittersweet sadness of unstoppable age and brutal poverty. “If there’s a synonym for magic/ it lies not in the wand/ but at the bud-bent end,” Skillman writes, invoking the feminine body and power, perhaps. The poem continues:

The body’s a spring,
          the mind a whore.
Easter dawn, and loss.

Better to have been born poor
          than come to this late poverty
where milk carries its aftertaste

*

Better to have been made
          to make do all along:
then she unwrapped a stick of butter,

saved the wrapper to smear a pan
          for the next flat cake
taken from the cavern of her oven.


Old moon-faced clock
          just beginning to light
the humble kitchen

where each day began
          at the same stained bowl;
then she wore her torn robe

over white bra and underwear,
          a dateless slip,
four dresses that carried through

every season. Lavender in a vase
          on the Formica table,
its smart yellow chairs.


          In this comparatively gentle and forthright poem, Skillman tears at the heart of the reader, demanding that she encounter the realities of inevitable old age, ruin, loneliness, and decay; that she recognize, in loved ones and relatives, as well as herself, the process of growing older.

          Serious literature, in contrast to popular writing, employs only the most vivid, powerful, and exact diction possible. This is probably even more crucial with poetry than prose, as poetry compresses language, building and interweaving imagery to convey cloaked and oblique meanings. In poetry, every word counts for double or triple points, and every word must be the right one, the most precise and illustrative choice. Skillman proves her virtuosity in “Mis En Abyme”:

As in the fractal—take
          the Koch snowflake, for instance, one of a gazillion
meted out by the sky.

*        

Who was Father with his viola,
          his tics and grunts, his bow?
                    Swipes of with marcato and staccato
          against the Hawaiian wood of his best viola.

          Even the reader with little or no scientific or musical background senses the importance of Skillman’s carefully chosen diction, and those with such training will appreciate her references even more fully.

          As a rule (though rules can and will be broken), poetry does not spell out and logically support its assertions; instead, it encodes them in images ranging from varicolored stardust to obsidian mud, as a day at the ocean, a live birth, or a night of lovemaking exposes one to a full spectrum of emotion—nature does not hold back, and poetry, as an art, resembles nature in its color, vision, and sublimity. When one takes a walk in the forest, one notes sensory impressions in a 360-degree, multidimensional, holistic range, the walk leaving a powerful and memorable imprint, though one might have trouble explaining the experience afterward, at least in logical, summative terms.           

          Crafting and weaving her poems, Skillman deftly uses both literal allusions and juxtapositions of the mundane with the bizarre, evoking a palpable sense of oppression, the reader often experiencing a visceral disgust or reactive horror. Alternately, one wonders if the speaker is deliberately twisting and encoding her words, phrases, and images specifically in order to hide within the poems from the oppressor (thereby creating a meta-effect), who in the poems appears often as the father and sometimes as cruel society, encroaching old age, dirt, decay, and even frightening animals and spirits. The poems in House of Burnt Offerings range in style and allusion from personal and family narrative (“Father, Figure”) to pieces that tackle political, religious, and mythic themes (“The Green Hour,” “Wifery”), though all share a viewpoint that is abstracted, reflected “through a glass, darkly.”

          Skillman’s writing is complex and shrouded, driven by a speaker or speakers determinedly grasping for life or at least survival despite dread of a still-living and often undetectable adversary. In this way,House of Burnt Offerings invokes a vivid, contained, and upsetting poetic world that a reader agrees to enter, similar to the House of Mirrors at the small-town carnival. Perhaps the carnival goer should have noticed the blackened tooth, the greasy shoes, the leer of the attendant, and decided against the dark thrill of the House. For the reader unafraid to walk in the dark, even through the forest, Skillman’s poems will provide stimulus for valuable reflection and, perhaps, deeper understanding.


Walking the line in Judith Skillman’s House of Burnt Offerings


In House of Burnt Offerings, Judith Skillman uses language the way a tightrope walker uses her body—the poems are infused with grace, courage, and balance. Of course, to find my own way through these poems, as a reader, I'm compelled to step out into the air, and follow along, taut line after taut line. This can be unsettling. It takes faith to read Skillman, at times—her associative, lyrical poems frequently eschew many of the usual safety harnesses found in contemporary poetry, for example direct narrative, first person confession, or simple imagistic closure.
The occasional sensation of being turned upside-down while reading this book is well worth the vertigo. There's a quiet intelligence here, a series of deep narratives that run like underground rivers, branching widely throughout the first two sections of poems, then coming together in the third section, surfacing with force and beauty. I’m in awe of—and grateful to—the author for such an exhilarating and rewarding journey.
Not usually a thrill-seeker in my reading tastes, I find myself wondering—how does Skillman convince me to go along with her on this often wild ride? Take a look at the last few lines in her poem “Swaybacked”:

“I enter the light called dusk.
  All the symbols of youth swallow, swallowed by Eliot’s violets.
    Tiresius—even Prufrock, who hardly knew whether to eat
  the bloody peach.

  I enter my spine as question mark.”

At first reading, the subject-verb structure of  “symbols of youth swallow" appears to parallel the previous sentence’s “I enter…” But as I continue to read, I realize, no—it's the symbols themselves that are “swallowed by” Eliot’s violets. OK, now my wary reader's antennae are up. Is it the “I” in the third sentence that’s the question mark? Or is it the spine? Well, yes. The answer is, all of the above. Skillman’s ability to accommodate multiple meanings in even the most seemingly straightforward of sentences is like being pushed by a doppelganger who insists we jump beyond obvious interpretations.
Given the high-stake issues these poems grapple with, challenges many readers can relate to—a long, complex marriage, parenting grown children, difficult childhood memories, aging, chronic illness, sudden economic downturn, and the shock of unexpected unemployment—her elusive explorations fit.
Images of enfolding and entanglement—the repeating shapes of end tables, matryoshka dolls, layers of onion, the echoing edges of fractals (Koch snowflakes, the Mandlebrot set, broccolini), a series of violins of gradually increasing size, the "ruffled crinolines" of Peonies, and even the body itself with "its passageways and labyrinths," work together to create a sense of not just collapsing and repeated patterns but also of the endless varieties of beauty in the physical world. Skillman not only describes these shapes and anti-shapes, she carries them from the physical world into the perplexities of personal relationship, the bindings and releasings that are so essential in partnership and parenting and friendship with others and with oneself. She captures this admirably in "Restraint," the last poem in the book:

" ...   a rope. A rope and a trapeze. A rope
and a trapeze and a circus artist whose curls
diffuse with light. Her arms extended,
she climbs above the audience, drapes herself
  in a shawl of beautiful poses, pouts, falls
  deliberately into the trap of hanging upside-down..."

Skillman excels at creating a sense of wide-openness, a spaciousness within and between her poems, paradoxically making this space most available at moments when the speaker of the poem—and the reader, following in her footsteps—feel most trapped, as in these lines from "Turnip":


“Once more you force
its fisted mass. Blanched white
with a feather of pink—
the bloodless promise?
Has the chemistry of want
exploded the dreamy cluck
of that heart in your chest?"

Here Skillman transforms a simple, everyday object, a root vegetable, by describing it vividly yet indirectly, as if painting an image of this most basic of peasant foods on a scrim, a piece of see-through fabric through which we're asked to gaze. She lets us look through the object itself and into the speaker's heart. Note her use of negation here. Even without the "feather of pink," simply reading "bloodless" makes the reader see red, if only a tinge. The tight heft of the turnip makes me feel both trapped and, simultaneously, set free. I get a similar sense of enclosure and release from the end lines in "Vases of Peonies": 

"...from dark soil—as if even one
of these perfect Persephones
   could live among our interruptions
and gallant intrusions, the sharp shears
   of our smiling teeth."



The duplicity and violence of those "smiling teeth" are emblematic of Skillman's respect for the power of domestic objects and events, a theme that wends its way through many of the poems with recurring images of gardens, kitchens, tables, chairs, clocks, children's toys, and fabrics as well as the activities of planting, cooking, caring for a sick child, sewing, packing up and moving to a new home, ironing, and making love. Even the most ordinary and caring activity, such as placing an armful of peonies in a vase, has the potential to cause damage and anguish. Part of Skillman's genius is to provide a way to step back from such straight-jacketed moments, to look at the situation from a different point of view—Persephone's, for example, or Tiresius'.
Tiresius, Apollo's blind soothsayer, was a wanderer known for his penchant to predict the future by listening to birdsong, observing copulating snakes, and reading patterns of smoke. “Swaybacked” doesn't linger on Tiresius, but learning something about him adds richness to the experience of the poem. Tiresius' pursuits also reflect the restless, searching that permeates the poems in the first two sections, the indirect, reticent yet focused, oracle-like flash of Skillman's eye.
In addition to Persephone and Tiresius, a number of other mythological and literary characters appear in House of Burnt Offerings, including: Lethe, Ariel (The Tempest), Hippodamia, centaurs, dopplegangers, St. Sebastian, Ophelia, krakens, Artemis, Hera, Gretel (Hansel and Gretel), and Alice (Alice in Wonderland). It's a generous move on Skillman's part. Individually, each character adds his or her own take on situations. Together they create a sort of cacophony that accumulates with each page, increasing the discomfort that weaves its way throughout the first two sections of this book. Of course, one doesn't have to look up every allusion to enjoy these poems. The sheer number of fragmented fairy tales, myths, and folk tales mentioned by Skillman emphasize just how hard it is to find any single narrative thread that's complex enough and right enough to hold the unique entanglements of a person's life.
I appreciate how Skillman widens the sense of community in these poems to include other writers, living and dead, especially the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, whose lines from Trilce, written in prison, introduce each of the three sections in Skillman's book. She also turns to him in "Ah Vallejo":

"After you left Peru forever,
  you made of guano Trilce,
  that stands on the border
  of every season…

...Here on the island
  of October, I mimic you
  by copying your sadness."

Ah, but not for long. Skillman is too wise to stay too long or too close to any one artist as she searches for her own unique path. In addition to Vallejo, she also turns to Eliot (Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), Thornton Wilder (Our Town), Kafka, Shakespeare (The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Hamlet), William Logan's poem “Paris in Winter,” Mike Nichols' 1967 movie The Graduate, and Richard Strauss' Burleske. Each allusion adds new perspective and meaning.
I first met Judith Skillman at a potluck in Kirkland hosted by Barbara Molloy, a mutual writer-friend. Judith was teaching at Bellevue Community College and had recently returned from a residency at the Centrum Foundation in Port Townsend. I was immediately taken by her wit and her interest in science—we both made a valiant effort to chat about the physicist Brian Greene's chaos theories while chasing our young children around the living room. Since then, I've had the opportunity to sit in on a number of Judith's workshops, lectures, and readings, and I often turn to her excellent Broken Lines—The Art & Craft of Poetry (Lummux Press 2013) for inspiration. She's one of the most generous, widely published poets I've ever met, and this same spirit of offerings imbues her latest book. Reading Skillman is like receiving a shot of language energy. Reading her makes me want to sit down and write. What greater gift from another writer?

Christianne Balk
November 29, 2015


 





 




Judith Skillman