Light Under Skin, Amanda Auchter (Finishing Line Press, 2006) -- reviewed by Tony Trigilio

Conventional mind-body dualism has no place in Amanda Auchter’s Light Under Skin, and this is the great allure of the book. The mind keeps itself alive in our skins; our bones are the very girders that support self-consciousness; the body is at once translucent and “heavy with words.” Even in sleep, we are weighted by the physicality of memory and experience -- “the silent stirrings // of our slumber & nightmares.” The body is revealed to be visionary at the same time it unravels into the ordinary. This necessary contradiction produces the mythic “light under the skin” of poems such as “Echoes from Mother,” where the speaker-fetus hears the “call” of her mother’s sleep as “echoes which drift and sway / as I lie awake, watching // the stars of our cells / splash and churn.” In their confrontation with the mysteries of the ordinary, these important poems evoke Levertov’s embodied questing, her “terrible joy” in the quotidian and its unguarded break and burn. Like Levertov, Auchter is earnest and exact as she experiences the elusive particulars of the everyday.

Her voices are swarming; they awake to possibility, reinventing themselves between the contemplative and the quotidian. They reconsider what Auden described, in his poem “Moon Landing,” as the “phallic triumph” that masculinized cultures get from “huddling in gangs and knowing / the exact time.” The people in Auchter’s poems instead huddle collaboratively -- with no less deftness or care than the timekeeping gangs Auden skeptically renders -- and they make knowledge for the sake of deep familial bonds, not for anything conventionally utilitarian. Auchter inverts Auden’s subject matter in her own “Moon Landing,” one of the central poems of sight and knowledge in Light Under Skin. Here the moon itself “lands” on the horizon-line of the speaker’s frame of reference. Auchter’s moon is not a place for conquest, but instead a sublime “body of dust dangled from some fine cord.” Her metaphor revels in self-referentiality -- the accomplished mythic artifice of her cord-dangled moon -- and in doing so, emphasizes that what we truly can know, what is tangible, in these moments is not “phallic triumph” but instead a breakthrough experience where the skin shifts and we rediscover how to navigate the “wild territory” of the body. In this way, the body becomes a place to exult in the intersection of the elegiac and the ordinary, and readers have a stake in making something out of the “unfinished paradise” of the body’s transience.

If history is, as in Auden’s poem, a tapestry of deeds “more facile / at courage than kindness,” then it’s tempting to join his call that “artists, / chiefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.” But Auchter is one of those poets who cultivates an alternative history of the tactile and the vulnerable. In poems such as “Photograph, April 1956,” which opens the collection, the most charged moments of our lives are at first obscured; history shoves us along seemingly predetermined tracks, yet the poem is sensitive to how stories emerge, disjunctive, from the random “scurry of thin air” of memory and experience. An expansive vision develops from the pressures of recollection and revision, as the poet speaks back to an old family photograph and, in doing so, mythologizes the past. Auchter intensifies the minute, anti-dramatic “slivers” of daily routines, the “quiet / existence of ordinary objects,” and traces the process by which they become embodied as personal mythos. Too often our vocal registers are charted into either narrative epiphany or impersonal disjunction, as if our only choice as readers and writers is the experiential or the abstract. But Auchter bridges the earnest and playful, and Light Under Skin weaves a love of language with a belief that vision and sensation are untamable.