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‘Skin Shift’ by Matthew Hittinger

‘Skin Shift’ by Matthew Hittinger

Author: Jerome Murphy

March 22, 2013

The distinctive poetic vision creates its own climate to which a reader, going from tourist to townie, can happily adapt. By the time readers of Skin Shift (Sibling Rivalry Press) encounter a deer-crossing sign with anatomy defaced in black magic marker, in the penultimate section’s “Sitting in a WaWa Parking Lot,” they are attuned to the phrase’s “black magic.” Double meanings abound in a landscape whose titular shift is both garment and metamorphosis.

I am a leper — no, a snake that sloughs
itself to reveal that supple layer.

The arc of these lines, the taxonomy and turn, is microcosmic of Skin Shift’s imaginative sphere and the “protean ambitions” of its inhabitants. Discovery of self as mutable allows for transcendent expression, and with a feel for the syllabic heartbeat of language, the speakers seize myriad opportunities for musical effect (most playfully, consonance and internal rhyme). One pities any would-be translators of work so informed by connotation, by sly etymological echo.

Hittinger is one to take a notion and skip it across its reflection, or open a hall of mirrors on it, and watch the associative ricochet. “Samson in Reverse” (in conversation with, among other sources, Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room”) finds the speaker re-imagining the barber’s chair from which he hoped to emerge “all / boy, as butch as Madonna / as Dietrich.”

Identity is doubled, trebled, troubled, in the turns of these poems’ kaleidoscopes, in refractions cohered by shrewd syntactic stratagems. “Rowers” delineates a picture in which “two / men pull as one snug form” across sunstruck water, the enjambments ensuring it will take the reader a moment, as if squinting, to discern the outdoor scene.

Skin Shift enacts rather than expounds its metaphysics, typically with such fluency as to seem organic, which is after all, unless you’re Marianne Moore or somebody, the point. The sonic dial turns way up for effects surely disastrous in hands less adept (“Local Lepidoptera Adopt Municipal Pool for Epic Opera Debut”). More frequently, Hittinger modulates within a lexicon of radii, bisections, and angles, and examines pigment and light along a studied spectrum, and it’s as though Bishop’s scalpel-like precision were brought to bear on these new crucibles of cultural alienation.

Tracing the thematic threads whose central knot is a meditation on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and their intricate, obsessive re-workings, one feels that poetry’s gain may have been a loss for world-class quilt-making. This eye could choose just the right squares for the harmonious but surprising whole. It enjoys juxtapositions of theme and color, intuitive parallels, what happens where corners meet or overlap; likes charged adjacencies of image and sound. “The Astronomer On Misnomers,” in which a diagram Point C embodies not only musical middle C but the gaze in which looker and looked-at meet, finds echo in the alliterative C-titles Concomitant, Celebrity Skin, Cybersex of the subsequent sonnet crown “Narcissus Resists,” and its concern with object and gaze. The ekphrastic touchstone is now Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus wherein the figure repeats, but radically rendered into elemental forms. This in turn echoes Kafka-inspired meditations on the body’s ultimate change, mortality.

Paid close enough attention, this level of thematic overlay, line by line, becomes almost unsettling. One could feel relieved that such an acuteness of consideration found suitable outlet.

Nor do Skin Shift’s narratives suffer in revamping any heirloom fabric. Some familiar players – Circe, Uncle Remus, David and Jonathan – make appearance, but the teller of tales is craftier than to simply redress old stories with modern trappings. “Narcissus Resists” becomes a reflection on society’s celebrity mythmaking, and the ways in which the worshipped might try to outwit it:

Water cut a deal with the tabloids:
catch those cheekbones, parted lips,
the ice blue star in each eye, a simple
first assignment. Narcissus never
showed, so Water froze a faux snap-
shot, afraid of editorial wrath. That
shadow, trapped, prove good enough
to lead…

This myth of Narcissus returns our accusatory gaze. The role of beauty-object resists resistance.

Likewise, Hittinger wades bravely, with genuine playfulness and imaginative empathy, into “Uncle Remus Denies the Ethnographer,” and the old myth of pigment-leaching pond becomes wry modern-day commentary:

You know, down at the beauty parlor
I see sisters straightening their kinky
hair and I think if only I would have
bottled some of that water.

As if conjured by the insistent rhythms, knitting becomes a literal motif in the closing “Platos de Sal,” in which grandmother Rut (suggestively named) whispers her own heartbreak into fond exchanges with her grandson, their discourse bound by cultural decorum. The notion of being juntar, or knit together with another, is explored in a series of chronological fragments ending with a loved one’s ghost in sea-spray, a figment of memory, evocative of a body’s final fusion with elements.

“Tough luck for the wood that realizes itself a violin,” wrote Rimbaud on the heels of the famous “I is an other.” Whether the locus of self-recreation is external or internal, or some negotiation perhaps evolutionary between the two, Skin Shift’s protagonists are alchemizing hard luck into music, reflexively spinning, Rumpelstiltskin-style, this glittering weave from the straws of the everyday.


Skin Shift
By Matthew Hittinger
Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9781937420147, 114 pp.
June 2012



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Jerome Murphy photo

About: Jerome Murphy

Jerome Murphy received an MFA from New York University, where he currently acts as Program Administrator of The Creative Writing Program. He assisted Diane Middlebrook in researching Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage. His reviews have appeared in the column Outwords, which he authored for Next Magazine from 2010-2011, and in The Brooklyn Rail. You can read more critical writing at:

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