Leaves Surface Like Skin
by MICHELLE MENTING
reviewed by JERI THERIAULT
Terrapin Books, 2017
The poems in Michelle Menting’s Leaves Surface Like Skin teem with careful observations of nature. While the title suggests that the natural world is an integral part of the human organism, the gorgeous cover art, by Christine F. Higgins, presents frozen-looking leaves and vines in the top three-quarters and warm roots in the bottom quarter, two realities divided by a permeable boundary. Both are apt representations of this collection’s central theme: boundaries—whether between human and nature, between human and human, or between memory and truth—are meant to be crossed.
In these pairings of humans and other organisms, humans seem unaware that they are meeting their equals. In the opening poem, “To Skin Bare,” someone is stripping the lichen-covered bark from a tree in the forest. In a kind of reverse-Daphne myth, the tree’s surface becomes “the skin of this other thing”— a human. The process of stripping—“like peeling scabs // not yours, a friend’s, a stranger’s”—is an act of violence, but the human “you” of the poem is only “almost” aware of committing this “compelled intrusion.” In “Upon Learning about Tardigrades from Wikipedia,” the poet conflates the microscopic Tardigrades with people, suggesting that humans, too, are parasites “dining on parasites.”
“On Lake Halfsestina” presents a fairy-tale reality in which the speaker and her young sisters become so enamored of the lake, they enter it, becoming “child-fish.” Because three of the six repeating end-words required by the sestina form are “leaves,” “surface,” and “skin,” “Halfsestina” functions as the title poem. The repetitions and carefully controlled sentences create a spell of transformation. Repeated L sounds create a spell-like music. Short sentences evoke stasis: “We loaf. We imitate lichen.” Longer sentences flow like moving water: “When loons call from the lake, their porous sounds liberate the leaves.” As the girls enter the lake, they “accept scales for skin,” and dive “into wet sleep.” Such metamorphosis seems ominous in the way of The Brothers Grimm, and yet there is something compelling and positive about this transformation; the girls follow the loons to “savor their black water” and they learn what “tranquility feels like.”
“Sky Writing” presents another girl, the speaker’s younger self, and another lake (this one frozen) where she slides her “Sorels from letter / to letter” writing to “bewildered chickadees, lost geese, late ducks. . . and jets.” The boundary she is attempting to cross is the loneliness of “that ten-year-old girl, rural and quiet.” Language—the writing of messages in the snow—becomes her means of making “contact.” Her messages seem desperate (“LAND HERE”). And though the “loops of foreign cursive” left by the jets seem small comfort to a lonely child, she half-convinces herself and the reader that she has made contact.
Loneliness is also the reality for the ten-year-old remembered in “When a Cup of Tea Should Do.” In an apt metaphor for a poet, the speaker wants to swallow the dictionary, but worries that the ink is poison. The speaker also remembers breaking thermometers when she was “ten and playing / mad scientist.” But the reader distrusts both assertions because the speaker seems uncertain; she heard about the mercury “from someone (at some other time)” and remembers the thermometer experiment “because of something / once read . . . from someone / (& somewhere) and then only maybe.” The confusion is exacerbated rather than explained in the third stanza when a “copy of Alice’s Adventures” appears beside the dictionary on her bookshelf for “reference (or fiction?).”
Confronting the boundaries of memory and place, Menting’s speakers are often uncertain. In “Upon Encountering in the Woods the House with No Driveway, No Trail, No Footpath Leading to the Front Door,” a “lone Gretel” approaches a strange house in the woods. The speaker both expresses and creates uncertainty: “There are people. / Are there people?” The specificity of her description—“rocking in chairs” and “loveseat couch”—depict a real place, but other descriptors—“phantom,” and “see-through”—suggests that the inhabitants of the house are ghosts. The poem conjures discomfort, even dread, since “Gretel” is an abandoned child facing the threat of the witch. This uneasy feeling is not entirely assuaged when we remember that Gretel outsmarted the witch and saved her brother.
Uncertainties also abound in several relationship poems. “Waning” presents another forest, this one of “hungers” and “wants,” the dark or uncertain side of connecting with another human. As she has done with Gretel, Menting uses Red Riding Hood to suggest threat:
(of hairy beasts dressing as grandmas of little girls
in devilish red cloaks) fingertip on true
hint at what is real.
But the speaker wants a “fully lighted” relationship, not the “shadows . . . on trunks / . . . as you make your way towards me / to meet in secret.” She chastises her reluctant lover who is afraid of what can’t be seen, secrets that “are just scenes alive in daytime.”
The couple in “First Snow Aubade” want their “longing to be real” but can’t seem to connect (“words are sparse”). They think they hear a loon, but it’s November, and what they really hear are the wings of a hunting hawk. In one of Menting’s grisly images, the speaker finds headless squirrels on her morning walk—a violent, decidedly unromantic reality, far from the romantic call of loons, a kind of wake-up call about the relationship.
“Revision,” presents another couple and their house, this one nearly empty, a place the lovers “didn’t know how to fill, except with . . . voices.” As with the young girl hoping her snow-trampled words will bring her connection, this couple’s words are useless; they bounce “against emptiness.”
Like many of the poems in Leaves Surface Like Skin, the final poem ends with transformation. The speaker in “After Reading ‘A Blessing’ by James Wright, I Pay More Attention,” wants to pay attention the way James Wright’s speaker does when he sees the “two Indian ponies” who “love each other.” Menting’s narrator almost achieves such “blossoming.” As she witnesses turtles laying eggs and “gentle Guernseys,” her left arm “greens to a stem,” and the fingers on her right hand “become petals.”
But Menting’s epiphanies are much darker than Wright’s. Throughout the collection her speaker has been attending less beautiful details, like a sack of (dead or dying) kittens in the grass (“Now All is Echo”) or the “backyards full of dog shit” (“Smarch”). It’s no surprise, then, that she takes issue with Wright. “I can’t ignore the sadness of the road,” says her speaker, sharing a vision of two squirrels, one of them roadkill, the other its mate who wouldn’t “leave its partner, the soft lump in the center of the road . . . clearly dead.”
The speaker’s response to “this living rodent, this pest” whose loyalty seems to mirror human emotion, moves well beyond the response Wright chronicles in “A Blessing.” This speaker declares that she will indeed break, “but not into blossom.”
Instead, I would crumble like a leaf
in November. I would crisp into pieces—
some parts dirt, while others
would sparrow into wind.”
The crumbled leaf, like the peeled “scabs” in the opening poem, is an image of decay and death. The strength of Leaves Surface Like Skin, embedded even in the title, is this insistence on looking past the blossom to leaf mold, lichen, and even roadkill. For Menting’s clear-eyed speaker, mortality is the essential factor in the equation of nature and human, and it is this shared dissolution more than anything that binds us.
JERI THERIAULT's latest chapbook, In the Museum of Surrender, won the 2013 Encircle chapbook contest. Her full length collection Radost, My Red, was released in 2016 by Moon Pie Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Beloit Poetry Review, The Atlanta Review, Rhino, The Paterson Literary Review, The Cafe Review, and The American Journal of Poetry. Her reviews have appeared in Connotation Press and The Collagist. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Fulbright recipient, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Maine.