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On Reading Olivia Cronk's Skin Horse in New Orleans

by Christopher Higgs

Christopher Higgs reads Olivia Cronk’s Skin Horse in New Orleans.

With a roiling stomach, after six hours zipping across I-10 from our Magnolia Heights neighborhood in Tallahassee to the Lower Garden District in New Orleans, presumably attributable to the consumption of fast food, an uncharacteristic activity for me, I snatch Skin Horse from my bag, rush to the restroom in our hotel room, plop down on the toilet only to find my body is too big for the little seat. I have to squirm to make myself fit. I am reminded of Žižek’s commentary on the relationship between toilets and ideology, an extension or elaboration or corruption of Kristeva’s theory of the abject, of course, and instantly I begin wondering about the cultural significance of a toilet seat so small as to be unable to comfortably accommodate a person of my figure, which is to say an average figure for a man in his mid-thirties who exercises half-an-hour to forty-five minutes a day and eats fairly well balanced meals and is only slightly overweight, and I begin to worry for those people who are obese, who seriously could not fit themselves on this tiny seat. I wonder what it would be like to have a body of such proportion. My bowels explode, regardless, as I open the book.

No front matter. Like a movie that begins sans credits. I flip to the back. Indeed, the copyright page, title page, and everything else are present at the end, after the main text. So my encounter begins with absence, or rather an inversion of the customary structure of a book; thus the comfort afforded by familiarity is disrupted from the start, which simultaneously calls attention to the convention and evokes in me great pleasure. Naughty little book, right from the start. Without the typical setup, I feel as though I have entered a blackened screening room in an art gallery where a video installation is on loop and I have walked in at this particular moment, not some other moment, and am greeted with this:

I did not think you would find

this forest.

My memory fails me. In returning to the book just now to quote the opening passage, I see that there is in fact a single page of opening matter between the cover of the book and the opening lines: a blank page except for two pictures at the bottom, a one inch horse facing left and a one inch horse facing right, both illustrations show the parts of the horse demarcated according to the cut of meat it would produce: the shank, flank, round, etcetera, as though the horse were a topographical map of a continent portioned into individual countries.

I did not think you would find

this forest.

How much have you seen?

The text is talking to me, asking me questions. I consider speaking to the text, telling it that I have just now entered the forest, that I have seen nothing yet, but it is time to wipe myself and wash my hands and venture out into New Orleans for the first time. I put the book down to carry out my business.

Later, after eating dinner at a restaurant called Slice, where I drank root beer and ate a Leidenheimer Pistolette Smothered in Melted Mozzarella & Red Gravy, a Caprese Salad with House Made Mozzarella and Vine Ripe Tomatoes drizzled with Balsalmic Syrup and topped with Fresh Basil, alongside a piece of Prosciutto, Arugula and Gorgonzola pizza, after walking around a little bit to digest, to look at some of the beautiful Victorian homes, after showering in the tiny shower that also could not accommodate a person of any substantial girth, I retired to the bed with Skin Horse.

Beginning again, I am greeted with the familiar opening lines:

I did not think you would find

this forest.

How much have you seen?

Preparing myself for an experience similar perhaps to the experience of reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, wherein the narrator takes the reader by the hand and incorporates the reader into the text, I am eager to find out where Cronk will lead me. But then, the next lines are these:

My crisp muslin skirt

nursed to chair

at dinner?

And with those lines, the spell is broken. With those lines, and the ones following on the opening page, Cronk releases my hand and disappears. Unlike Calvino, she will not be my guide. I must find my own way, must build my own map of the forest. Soon I will be confronted with lipstick lights and Polish girls and bare life and animal sores and miniature eggs and sunset skirts and mushroom clouds and cup scams and mausoleums and then a blank page.

The blank page invites me to sleep.

The next morning my wife and I ride the streetcar to the French District to eat beignets and drink café au lait at Café du Monde. The line to get a table runs for two blocks down Magazine Street, pretty much the length of Jackson Square. Along the Square side, a fleet of horse-drawn carriages line up in hopes of carting tourists like us around the Quarter. For the first time, the scent of urine overwhelms me. Skin Horse comes to mind. After the blank page, these words:

In it

grandmotherly girls

with piss teeth

go yelling

in a room of my underwear.

Daniel Borzutzky describes Skin Horse on the back cover as “a burning zone of mechanical, brain-dripping horrors, a degraded rendering of the extreme consequences of natural and corporal decay.”

They demand

I explain

this scene.

I cannot.

The heat in New Orleans cannot be compared to the heat anywhere else, I decide. And this coming from someone who lives in North Florida, who has lived in Las Vegas, who has lived in the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, West Africa. The heat in New Orleans, to borrow a phrase from Skin Horse,

It is like living under

the captain’s envy

or else, to borrow another phrase, the heat in New Orleans makes me feel like

There is someone very invisible standing inside of my body. And she is heating up, boy
is she.

Now I am visiting the Sculpture Gardens, which greet me with Rene Magritte’s “The Labors Of Alexander.” This two piece sculpture depicts a tree stump and an axe. The missing tree reminds me of the missing words in Skin Horse. Reminds me of how Williams created those prose-like sentences in Spring & All where he just stops without completing a thought. Seems like Marjorie Perloff draws attention to those incomplete sentences in her book on the poetics of indeterminacy. Cronk uses a similar strategy, or perhaps a mutation of it. There are these gaps, these invisible words, these moments where one imagines Magritte’s tree before it took the axe. Makes me wonder if Cronk’s poems existed always without those missing words or if they did in fact at one time exist only to be axed like the tree whose absence Magritte cannot expect us to ignore. The words around the missing words are like the stump, they reveal without revealing:

The book are reading is a strange voice on . The lady is busy all the time with her brain tests.

I want to say the missing words in that last quote are “you” and “you” but what if the words are “they” and “Mars” which makes sense if you have read Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, in which Martian inhabitants become bewitched by a mysterious musical phrase of unknown origin.

Each page is a textlette. Most pages have a huge empty header. Most pages have a smatter of words in the center. Sometimes there is lineation, sometimes there is not. Twice there appears a thick black line running vertically down the page, separating text, although as it happens I can read directly across the page as if the line were invisible and its legibility in those instances seems crystal clear.

There is a webworm, a sun skeleton, a sweet sister, an albino deer, an owl’s face, a poisoned eel, a clutch of ponies, a stuffed-woman, young aunties, and a drugged ghost. There is a moldy wall, untrue pearl buttons, skulled velvet, and dirty catches of velcro. There is water, terror and seahorses.

As I move through the Sculpture Garden, sweat soaking the front and back of my t-shirt, I can’t help but think of Skin Horse,

Every forest wants its mirror.

My wife stands underneath Louise Bourgeois’s spider.

Then I am in the room.

Then I am drowning in a curtain.

The sun has set. From a sweaty t-shirt, I have changed into a crisp white button-down and a pink tie with grey slacks and unpolished shoes.

I’ve got all night for this shit.

We eat dinner at Muriel’s in the French Quarter, which purports to be haunted by the ghost of a man who committed suicide there in 1814. While I sip my Mojito in the Seance Lounge, I imagine a connection between this location and Skin Horse. I see Cronk’s words sparkle in the glass dangling from the chandelier:

We may see the air go hard

in the broken language of this place &

the arms

make arms &

announce

in this place

After dinner we stroll. A near-naked woman on Bourbon Street stands behind a windowpane like the prostitutes do in Amsterdam. Two other semi-nude women gambol and flirt in front of the Hustler strip club.

Meanwhile the ladies

A murder of frat boys hoot and holler. A few young kids hold buckets and tap dance. A few inhuman-looking figures play horned instruments in the entryways of closed-up shops. A ten year old boy smokes a cigarette as if he had been smoking since the age of six.

There is my own terror.

The seahorse of all this

is hacking yellow

a dry lung.

At the zoo the next day, my wife stands in front of the flamingo enclosure so I can take her photo. We catch a glimpse of the elephants in the Asian area, but as we arrive they are being escorted to their covered home for a nap. The first pair of lions we meet are brooding, most likely because of the insane temperature outside. Sweat streaks my front and back. My face is slick with the stuff. I wonder whether the lions ever tire of their meals and if they ever dream of Olivia Cronk’s words, ever share her imagination somehow, perhaps magically.

It will

rain rats and

I am no longer interested

in the deal.

My favorite animal by far is the otter. More than the other creatures here and outside of here, in the world of both Wal-Mart and academia, the otters are playful and fun-loving. They seem unfazed by their internment. I envy them.

This is Real. This is all in. The meat hut

is closed. I can touch the weep of them all.

And upon exiting the zoo, walking back through the beautiful neighborhood rather than the beautiful park designed by the same man who designed Central Park and The Biltmore, back toward Tulane University, back toward the streetcar we would take to return us to our hotel, I think about the birds we saw in the bird cave and how some of them built upside-down nests that looked like bulb-shaped mini-beaver-dams, how some of them exhibited in their plumage a shade of red I’d never seen before, how all of them would never experience migration, how none of them would ever see beyond the confines of their captivity.

Forest, please. Why does its

looking keep them?

The secret is never revealed. The end of Skin Horse also contains a zoo of sorts. Rat holes and lizard orgies, the fowls of sky, and the awkward beast a knockin’ in the night. All the guilt of being alive faces you. The grief of a stolen liver. A flower’s leg. The final words don’t help me exit New Orleans or anywhere else, let alone Cronk’s forest. Instead, the final words make me desire home where I can safely read the book again from the beginning without the heat or miniature bathroom or anything else to confine me.

I see to my old man’s tongue

caught on a tooth

just as the word tunnel

finishes.

I smack it out on a leather wall.

Christopher Higgs wrote The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, a novel (Sator Press), and assembled ONE in collaboration with Blake Butler & Vanessa Place (Roof Books). He teaches literature at Florida State University, and curates the online art gallery Bright Stupid Confetti.

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Review
Poetry
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