Review of “Skin Folk” by Vanessa Jimenez Gabb
“Skin Folk,” the latest poetry chapbook by jazz artist and former professor at Concordia University, Canada, Jeri Brown, is a collection fueled by the past. The main first-person speaker, in the final poem, “kin,” says, “Last year as I prepared for a salvage pickup,/I sifted through much from my past.” It isconcrete object that leads to abstract memory that leads to deep exploration of identity. And though this is the final piece in the chapbook, it is meant as a prism by which to read what comes before. People come before – a record of Brown’s personal, socioeconomic and racial kinfolk – and poets and writers come before – literary giants like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin and Cormac McCarthy are evoked here. The poems weave together to form an ethnographical and lyrical tapestry in essay, photo, poem and photograph form.
“Skin Folk” is an ode to character, to archetype, specifically, to women, to the working-class, to strength as well as to vulnerability. Brown opens with the poem, “warrior” and the line, “What do disabled warriors do?” Beginning witha rhetorical question, with the use of juxtaposition, speaks to Brown’s deft ability to balance the humanity of those she seeks to idolize. She follows with “Do they train to become carpenters,/engineers,/bookkeepers and / chauffeurs?” What follows here is Brown’s cue, her entry point into a tracing back, into memory, specifically of those who came before that worked with their hands, their voices, their scents. There is a reverence here, for those who have labored, who have done the glamorous and the thankless work of life. In a long poem “landscape,” Brown says “Pity for those who could not handle the rich / pungent emotional odor…” Here, and elsewhere, enjambment works as a political act, a subtle and significant class awareness that colors the entirety of the chapbook. There is pride here for those who have come first to lay down roots.
Much of the chapbook is comprised of third-person prose-poem blocks that operate as eulogy, death and life notice, utilizing colors and textures, third-person perspective and dialogue, photos and drawings, functioning almost as persona poetry to illuminate social life and culture. It is this overlay that is the triumph of the book, Brown’s squarely placing her speaker in the position of context, of inheritance, of the tradition of migrations (we travel from the American South to Norway and finally to Quebec). Perhaps this is why the “I” figures in so lightly, so humbly, until the final pages. It can’t be itself until it has traced these iterations and reconfigurations that precede it.
While the balance of the collection might benefit from even more of the “I” and her subjective meditations on the cataloging she presents, when it does appear, the presence is beautifully complex and confessional. Brown names one of the most significant first-person poems, “fled to my past,” whose prepositional phrasing is intriguing as one might typically flee away frominstead of towards. “Fled” suggests a need to leave because of oppressive factors. In “Skin Folk,” though, Brown and her speaker can only understand and embrace the present of understanding by traveling, figuratively and literally, over various physical, musical and ancestral landscapes. There is a sacredness in this that energizes and ignites. “Skin Folk” goes within the skin, to deferentially pursue the convergence of place and person, the complexity of self by what has led to self.
Vanessa Jimenez Gabb is the author of Images for Radical Politics. She is based in Brooklyn.