The Language of Skin

shadow light skin arm

Two Pieces by Justin Brouckaert.

Read them @ Ghost Proposal.

This week’s unsolicited and likely rambling commentary focuses on some great prose writing by Justin Brouckaert. I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to take on not one but two pieces in today’s post. This is because these works (prose blocks? poems? short-short stories? You decide!) share some common elements and strategies. Since the pieces have an “experimental” vibe–that is, they challenge conventional prose forms–today’s discussion may get a little abstract. I apologize if this becomes a problem, but I’ll admit that sometimes I like these highly abstract commentaries; if you stick to abstractions, no one can tell you you’re wrong.

The pieces we’re talking about today are called

Yes, There Is A Small Man In My Hallway, But We Have Other Pressing Matters To Discuss

and

[If I See You On A Hill, I Will Take You]

A mystery: why is it that only the second piece appears in brackets? We associate brackets with parenthetical thoughts, meta-commentary. We think of the editorial process, which is constructive and deconstructive at the same time. Brackets are also containers, like our human skin-suits, and if we’re reading these pieces on a purely literal level, both seem to be talking about what it is to wear and manipulate and shed our human skin. Skin is sort of bracket-like: it may be a meat container, but it’s also a person-container, so to slough off one’s skin is to get at the essence of a person and how that person moves.

Thus we find in both these pieces themes like: skin-suits, the deconstruction of the individual and the human experience, and (dis)connection. Since the author of these surrealist monologues seems to be so interested in taking things apart, it’s only fitting that we do a little dissection of our own.

There are two central figures in each piece: an “I” and a “You.”

There are also ancillary figures. “Yes, There Is a Small Man…” also features a small man, as the name implies, plus a dog that is equally small. “[If I See You…”‘s supporting cast consists of “two somethings, alone in our old bedroom.” These two somethings are obviously open to interpretation, but it’s not too much of a leap to see them as past selves–a shared history receding in the distance.

These pieces juxtapose surrealist narrative sentences like this

Now there is this other man & he will help me scrape you from my knuckles.

with totally abstract thoughts like this:

I am learning to dislike, and then to like what I learned to dislike.

Personally, I much prefer concrete narrative details to more interior abstractions, but it’s the latter that give these pieces such skin-like elasticity. 

These pieces have moments of beauty and moments of ugliness and certainly segments of wacky humor–all effects that can be created through everyday descriptive narration. But the narrative (of the little man in the first piece, of the hills and skin in the second) is also marked by less-tangible internal moments that stir in the metaphysical.

It’s probably safe to say many readers, while taken with the dazzling imagery and anatomical surrealness of these pieces, will stumble on these occasional nodes of ambiguity–certain phrases sprinkled here and there without apparent anchor within the larger text. One example from the second piece is this short phrase:

We are all caught up now.

Who is We? Caught up in what? And is “all” modifying the We or the Caught Up? Does Caught Up imply being trapped or indicate there was someone/something they were “catching up to?” This short phrase is slippery indeed, and parts like these are where an invested reader can devise an interpretation that’s right for them. Caught up in the experience of each other? In running over hills and play-dancing with skin?

Yes, these are both challenging pieces, far from stable in their meanings, but I guess this is what makes poetry and experimental prose worthwhile for many readers: the interactivity, the openness of the text. Really, these pieces are every bit as stretchy as the skin that’s flung about “like a gown” in the second piece. These pieces are not easily unpacked via Spark Notes analysis, but they are lively and fun to read and toy with in the mind. Sometimes, at least with experimental writing, “getting it” is kind of beside the point.

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