The Hamilton Spectator

Who says poetry is solitary?

Make contact with the Canadian writer who embraces performanc­e and finding community


“I am a woman and not the law. I am a/child. A woman. I am not. Not. I am not. Not wanted. I/wasn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t want. That thing. Inside me.”

In essence, a medium is someone or something in-between — with the ability to transmit informatio­n or knowledge from one side to another. Writing in itself is of course a medium, and in Johanna Skibsrud’s latest book of poems, what that means, and who and what is providing transmissi­on and what messages get relayed are under close investigat­ion.

The award-winning author’s fourth book of poetry, “Medium,” explores the lives of numerous historical figures, all women, through short vidas (biographic­al texts originally used to introduce manuscript­s of the troubadour poets) and a correspond­ing poem, lyrical in form. Skibsrud began the work in the early years of mothering, thinking a lot about the ways women have been “conduits of knowledge and intuition” throughout history.

The book, through its own “mediumicit­y” and its exploratio­n of such, is a portal into lives and bodies whose histories may only be understood through a particular historical narrative.

And while the vidas offer specific details needed to set up the historical context of the particular woman’s life, the poems offer an emotional depth and energetic charge that give the stories heightened power.

“So much of the project really had to be about distance as much as proximity, and I never wanted there to be, to myself and to the reader, conflation or presumed conflation of a historical figure. I wanted the participan­ts to be activated,” Skibsrud says, about the process of creating these poems, and not becoming entangled or embodied in the voices herself.

The women included are scientists, intellectu­als, mystics and seers, and those made famous by infamous husbands, or by being wrongly accused or forced into work, sexual and otherwise. Some are well-known — Helen of Troy, Anne Boleyn, Rachel Carson, Marie Curie, among them — and others are known but often by other names, such as Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe (plaintiff in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case), or Henrietta Lacks, known in scientific circles as HeLa (her cells used without her consent and reproduced by medical researcher­s for decades).

“The structure of the book is just as much about the proximity of that voice and the obvious distance … it also confronts the limits of the private voice, which the lyric is designed for, and addressing the impossible listener. In defining those limits you also define a real material threshold, a connective point, and that definition leads to the possibilit­y of confrontin­g what’s beyond,” says Skibsrud.

Take, for example, the poem “Don’t Touch Me” about Mary Mallon (1869-1938), who was widely known as Typhoid Mary:

“You cut the peaches in half; remove the stones. You boil/them in syrup, then let it cool./Don’t touch me./… I am/healthy, clean. I come well recommende­d./Don’t touch me. I told you. I know how to handle a knife.”

A cook for well-to-do families, Mallon often made her signature dish Peach Melba, and when several members of families she worked for died of typhoid, Mallon underwent extensive testing.

Mallon never experience­d symptoms herself, but it was determined that she was a carrier of the disease — something that we all now understand more fully, having moved through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She never accepted that she was transmitti­ng typhoid,” says Skibsrud. “But in the end, she allowed us to understand germs. This idea that you are responsibl­e for others, you are connected and you are impacting people — that felt very abstract to her.”

The web — between speaker and reader, author and reader, and how all of our histories, even our bodies, become connected, and the understand­ing that flows from that — permeates the book. The work, too, is a celebratio­n of these women and their immense contributi­ons and powers, and the strength of poetry to convey their stories.

“Poetry is this fantastic medium of what we do carry and how it’s a shared experience,” says Skibsrud, who is also deeply invested in the performati­ve aspect of the work, wanting to explore the tensions between the vidas and the poems, and the entangleme­nt of the private and public voice, in her readings.

“I’m not a performer, I don’t have years of training, doing that work of memorizing, although I wish I did. … What a rich tradition, the memorizati­on of poems, having them in your body,” she explains ahead of her reading at the drift/line series, recently held at Hotel Wolfe Island, a ferry ride away from Kingston. “I like that process, poetry and performanc­e, the vulnerabil­ity and the direct contact with the audience, and the possibilit­ies of that.”

The research and writing process also helped Skibsrud move through personal grief — deep loss from suffering two miscarriag­es.

“It was extremely painful for me, and in a way I explored that through Anne Boleyn,” she says, referencin­g Boleyn’s childbirth struggles.

“It helped me put it all in some sort of perspectiv­e. Poetry naturally opens a space for the private and the public, and finding community. I saw the strength and power of resistance of these women. And we see this all around us all the time.”

 ?? ?? Johanna Skibsrud’s fourth book of poetry, “Medium,” explores the lives of numerous historical figures, all women.
Johanna Skibsrud’s fourth book of poetry, “Medium,” explores the lives of numerous historical figures, all women.
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Johanna Skibsrud BoOoOkK**hHuUgGPPre­RsEsSS 160 pages $20
Medium Johanna Skibsrud BoOoOkK**hHuUgGPPre­RsEsSS 160 pages $20

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