Cameron Lowe reviews “Autographs” by Alex Skovron
by Alex Skovron
Reviewed by CAMERON LOWE
Autographs, Alex Skovron’s fifth collection of poetry, is a welcome addition to an already well-established oeuvre. Unlike Skovron’s novella The Poet (2005), which was burdened by an unconvincing narrative, the fifty-six prose poems that comprise Autographs are a return to his strengths. Most notably, these poems dwell on the seductions of time and memory, imaginings of the past within the present, and importantly, how these imaginings shape notions of self-identity. Although these poems display the distinct influence of Borges, they carry (to make a fairly lame pun on the collection’s title) Skovron’s own signature.
Having already mentioned Skovron’s novella, it is interesting to contemplate why these ‘prose’ works succeed in a way that The Poet—at least for this reviewer—did not. While these pieces appear, at least formally on the page, to be works of prose, their rhythm and imagery are more closely aligned to ‘poetic’ language. Although such distinctions can be arbitrary and misleading—and on a theoretical level possibly quite meaningless—it is hard not to feel that poetry is Skovron’s form, the genre in which his writing is most ‘alive’. Structurally, what these prose poems allow is a freedom from the linear narrative that characterised The Poet. Rather, the various thematic concerns already mentioned appear in Autographs as recurring motifs, giving the collection a fractured unity.
Autographs is in many ways an extended meditation on the past, a past that is always carried with us, where memory ‘caresses the hidden contours, moments which lived and died, and survive as a chorus of ghosts’ (p36). One of the inherent dangers in this emphasis upon the past, particularly when employing personal memories, is that the writing falls victim to nostalgia. Skovron is clearly aware of this potential pitfall and avoids it by making nostalgia itself one of the thematic concerns of the collection. In ‘Key’ this ambivalence toward personal recollection is directly addressed:
Don’t know why but I keep coming back to those glittering frames, perpetually rewinding the film. OK, call it nostalgia—that glorious pang somewhere between diaphragm and heart. I know I must seem preoccupied with nostalgia. (p31)
And later in the poem we are given an insight into these meditations upon the past, this summoning of childhood memories as a way, perhaps, of coming to terms with self: ‘Because childhood never really ends; it’s morphed into a future it must fill, a replica locked against itself. The key is lost, but you can feel it glinting there, deep within’.
Skovron appears to share Bachelard’s fascination with the poetics of space, so that many of these recollections of the past involve remembered places. A number of poems in the book’s second section, ‘Labyrinth’, such as ‘Room’ and ‘Chamber’, ‘Village’ and ‘Parks’, evoke the rooms and places to which memory faithfully returns, even if the narrator of these poems is aware that ‘some of the details are not quite correct’ (p32). ‘Village’, perhaps, best exemplifies this vivid imagining of place:
Ride down into the village heart, past the cinema screening Cousteau’s marks, where strips of discarded film lie about for small boys to skim. Wheel left into the main stretch, where the buses from Haifa stop, with snub noses, diesel perfume, lever-controlled doors. Past the hardware store with its gadgets, buckets and tools, the shopkeeper couple, your neighbours, whose bespectacled daughter is the friend who will forget you. Past the playground nook where you slipped between the spokes of a carousel, cracked your skull, cried bleeding all the way home. (p 26)
Many of the poems in Autographs possess a haunting quality that lingers long after you’ve returned the book to its place on the shelf. ‘Possession’, the second piece in the collection, is one such poem. Superficially, the poem is the story of a young boy who sees a similarly young girl holding a balloon:
The boy catches sight of the blue balloon. He is standing in the courtyard of a museum. He watches the girl who possesses the balloon. She bounces it along the asphalt, rolls it on the grass, bumps it into the air. The blue balloon fills the sky as it rises and dips. The boy is mesmerized by the balloon, he would like to possess one just like it…from that moment he can think of nothing but the blue balloon. (p4)
While this passage evokes a kind of childlike innocence, a sense of naïve wonder—and it should be said that nothing later in the poem explicitly disrupts this reading—there is a distinct feeling that other, less innocent emotions are surfacing here. The setting of the poem in a museum, with its ‘antique toys and artefacts, illuminated manuscripts, quaint instruments of music, replicas of weapons, photographs of notorious battles, a model torture-chamber, an ancient sarcophagus with its lid ajar’ is perhaps suggestive of a larger historical scope to this seemingly simple poem. There is a sense we are playing out something that has occurred before, something intrinsically human. Or, perhaps more pertinently, something intrinsically ‘male’, for the boy’s ‘delicious dream of the balloon’ may also be heralding the awakening of male desire and its less innocent aspects. Importantly, the poem leaves itself open to varied interpretations, allowing the reader to imagine this scene on a number of layers.
While this textual layering works admirably in ‘Possession’, in some cases it seems somewhat contrived. ‘Neighbours’, for instance, which portrays a petty, yet long-running dispute between neighbours (and appears to be a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is a little too cute, despite the sardonic humour: ‘In end, after we’d invested our best, sullied utterly each other’s abode—it stopped. They stopped, we stopped (I forget who began) (p13).
The final section of Autographs, ‘Shadow’, introduces us to the fictional character Kezelco, perhaps an alter ego figure to the narrative voice of the previous section. In many of these poems Kezelco acts as a kind of dislocated commentator on contemporary society, in part a participant and at the same time partly remote from ‘things he will never understand’(p41). In ‘Threshold’, where Kezelco purchases a replicant girl, we are treated not only to a fine example of Skovron’s sense of humour, but also a sharp observation on society’s fascination with the superficial:
The skin seems so alive—her flesh virtually glows, pulsates under his touch. He pulls back; scans the instructions in the operating manual, discovers wondrous secrets. Breasts subtly resizeable (‘pert, pleasingly nippled’); eyes digitally tuned (‘photoresponsive, with tracing focus’); the skin resilient (‘firm but not unyielding’); limbs and joints fully flexible, the hands miraculous (fingers ‘autonomous but utterly compliant’); buttocks immaculate (‘warm, superbly furrowed’); the mouth a marvel (lips ‘rich and creamy’, tongue ‘correctly moist’), programmable for gentle suction and/or sound…Kezelco feels he can grow to love this woman. (p59)
In counterpoint to Kezelco’s eccentric musings, ‘Shadow’ also features a number of poems that possess a disturbing, more threatening tone; or, to put it differently, these poems exhibit a sweeping, almost cosmic scope, one that challenges our perceptions of ‘human’ significance. ‘Fermata’ captures this beautifully:
And so the clouds dissolve, the old monuments crumble away, the children laugh at us, creaking in the wind; and December comes, dancing in the afternoon breeze. The light changes, time slithers to a stop, inhales, turns back on itself and is gone. Nothing has really altered, yet the world will never be the same. (p52)
Autographs is an impressive collection by an accomplished poet. One of the great pleasures of this book is not simply reading it but re-reading it, for it is a collection that rewards returning to. Skovron’s achievement in Autographs is to have crafted poems that are at once intimately personal and yet reach beyond this to offer a mysterious vision of the world.