Cleanskin Poems by Laureen Williams, Island Presws 2016, was launched by Ron Pretty on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel.
If you look at the brief bio at the back of the book, you will see that Lauren Williams has had a wide range of occupations, some of which appear in these poems; you will also see that her career as a poet has been interrupted, at least partly, by ten years or so as a song writer. So it’s no surprise that we have had to wait fifteen years for these Cleanskin Poems to arrive.
And it’s great to see them. If ever there was an appropriate title for a book of poems, it is this one, and I congratulate Lauren on its choice. I have spent the last few weeks considering the term ‘Clean Skin’, its various meanings, connotations and applications, and the way the term resonates with the poems and two articles that make up this book.
There are at least four different ways you can look at the term ‘clean skin’, three of which relate directly to the poems and articles in Lauren’s book. The other one, I’ll dispose of straight away. Those of you who know me will realise that I am now indeed a clean skin. Not from choice, I can assure you, but unfortunately, radiation therapy doesn’t give you much choice. I don’t think I have been this smooth of cheek since I was about one. The rest of the face & scalp is a different story: blame that on liquid nitrogen – and, I should add, the dermatologist’s sharp knife.
That wasn’t the first meaning that leapt into my head of course. Cleanskin immediately suggests wine – to me anyway. Good wine in plain bottles at a reasonable price. As an analogy for Lauren’s poems, it’s quite revealing. Her preference has always been for clear, strong poems: good wine in plain bottles. She writes poems that open out to her audience whether on stage or on paper. The trick with such poems, of course, and a method she has perfected over the years, is to suggest deeper meanings under an accessible surface. This is wine that will improve with being cellared, as well as wine that’s good for drinking now.
A poem of hers that I often use in workshops is a poem from an earlier book, Invisible Tattoos, I think it was. The poem itself is called ‘Shallow’, an amusing and somewhat self-deprecating poem, but a wonderful last line that gives a totally different way of seeing the whole. If you can find it, have a look. But there are a number of examples of the same method in this book.
See ‘Dental Record’ for instance (I love that ‘I don’t smile, I barracuda for the camera’) or the self-deprecation in ‘Some Harmless’, not so much in his cutting last comment, but in her earlier decisions to go along for the ride; or ‘On Chemistry’, its wonderful last stanza:
There is no chaperone more fierce
than age. I listen chastely
to my body’s late verse,
the exquisite ache of it, sad
as if speaking for the last time
on these matters, like someone
talking over their shoulder as they
quit the room, leaving the door
slightly ………. ajar.
Going back to the title, the term also suggests honesty and innocence, a suggestion that the ‘clean skin’ has not been corrupted by the world around them, or not yet anyway. As you read these poems, you will be struck by their directness, their refusal to pretend the experience was anything other than what it was, whether they are talking about other people, other experiences, or of the poet herself. See examples such as ‘The Belt’ or ‘Repetition Injury’ or ‘What the Trees Stand For’.
Finally, the title suggests – to me at least – the related term ‘having skin in the game’; and Lauren certainly has skin in the game. You don’t need to read the two essays to see that, for the poems themselves make it clear. Read for example, her long poem called ‘Say That Again’. It’s hard to quote from that complex satiric poem, but this will give you something of its flavour:
Does It Matter What Town I’m In?
If no-one understands
The first line, the poem
I don’t care for maps.
That’ll do it…
Or read ‘Shakespeare Was a Performance Poet’ or – in fact read any of the poems in the last section of the book.
Having said that, you should read those two essays at the end of the book: they state her position – her skin in the game – very clearly. Whether or not you agree with her position, you’ll find them both interesting and challenging. I should add that I find myself agreeing with most of what she says there. Fundamental to both essays – and indeed to many of the poems – is the need for Australian poets to build their readership/audience, not as gatekeepers protecting a particular approach, or who dismiss other poets by attaching a label to them, but by entertaining people, moving them, challenging them … and giving them something both comprehensible and worth reading or listening to. It’s hard to argue with that.
Returning to the poetry for a moment, part of the pleasure of the poems in the book are their wide range of interests. Poems of childhood, autobiographical poems (many of which reveal that self-deprecating quality I mentioned in relation to ‘Shallow’; there are poems dealing with sex (including that wonderfully humorous poem, ‘Why I like talking to mechanics’ – who but Lauren could make car parts sound so sexy?); there are also poems of travel and of politics, poems exploring aspects of the art and life of Howard Arkley and many poems dealing with poets and poetry – her skin in the game, as I have just said. As you’d expect, there are also many hard-hitting poems – ‘Paddock Moll’ or ‘So You Want Blood’ or ‘What Gets Lost’ and many others.
Like a good bottle of wine, there is much pleasure to be had from Lauren’s latest collection. There is a lot of humour in the book – see for example, her poem called ‘New York City T-shirts 2002’ – a sort of never-ending poem, or ‘Last Tango in Wagga’ or ‘Young Female Poet II’; but there are also many strong, hard-hitting poems, well worth lingering over with a glass of good red. Buy the book, enjoy the fruits of the harvest.
I’m looking forward to hearing Lauren read some of these poems. Congratulations, Lauren, I declare Clean Skin a great vintage hereby launched.
– Ron Pretty
Ron Pretty has been publishing his poetry for 40 years. His eighth book of poetry, What the Afternoon Knows, was published in 2013. He has taught writing throughout Australia and in US, England and Austria. From 1983 to 1999 he was Head of Writing at the University of Wollongong. He was the director of Five Islands Press, for which he published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987 – 2007. He taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, 2004 – 2007. In 2012 the Australia Council for the Arts awarded him a residency in Rome.