Thick-skinned. Thin-skinned. No skin off my back. By the skin of my teeth. He got under my skin.
Tuesday night I had a dream. It was about skin. My skin.
I have thought about skin a lot. And what I think about is the function of it, how you can clean it up time and time again, how it’s waterproof, how it heals itself, and how it’s this tight shell that keeps the rest of me from spilling out all over the place. And how many layers there are. There are so many literal layers to us.
I have also thought about the color of skin, of course, and although that’s not the skin discussion I’m going for right now, I don’t want to ignore the fact that people think about skin color. A lot. When my daughter was four or five and I was giving her a bath, she asked, “Why am I called white when my skin is peach, and why is Yohanna called black when her skin is brown?” She wasn’t asking why we’re different colors, but why we label and categorize people based on those colors. (No wonder she majored in Sociology in college). Bathtub reflections are along the lines of just-drifting-off-to-sleep reflections and children never warn you when the big questions are coming.
Here’s what it says about skin on MedlinePlus, which is a service of the US National Library of Medicine published by the National Institute of Health: “The skin is the largest organ of the body. The skin and its derivatives (hair, nails, sweat and oil glands) make up the integumentary system. One of the main functions of the skin is protection.”
Sometimes, though, our skin protects us a bit too much.
Last night I dreamt I peeled
the skin from my face.
Starting at the hairline, I massaged
my scalp until it curled
under my fingertips, and gingerly
I wrapped my fingers and thumbs
around a thin film –
skin is a delicate matter –
and oh so gently and slowly
I stripped a layer from most
of my forehead. Above my right
eyebrow my skin split,
but I continued pulling
at a diagonal across the bridge
of my nose and left cheek.
I dropped my hands to study
myself in the mirror. None
of my expectations were fulfilled.
No blood. No scars. No revulsion
at the exposure. Instead, new
skin, shiny and tender, lay
next to the wrinkles and leather
of my old face, and my eyes,
both the new one and old one,
stared back at me, freed and focused.
The website Poetry Archive explains that, “Syntax refers to word order, and the way in which it works with grammatical structures. As we are used to hearing things in certain orders, the effect of breaking with normal syntax is to draw attention to what is being said and the way it is said.”
When the normal order of words (i.e. subject + verb + object) is intentionally changed, an emotional or psychological shift occurs. In poetry (like in other types of writing) syntactic rules can be stretched and bent and broken for reasons such as emotional impact, emphasis, and intentional ambiguity. Additionally, in poetry, how the sentence is broken into lines causes an interplay of sound and meaning, an intentional pace, and an interesting compressed visual composition.
Let’s look at the above poem in terms of its sentences:
- Last night I dreamt I peeled the skin from my face.
- Starting at the hairline, I massaged my scalp until it curled under my fingertips, and gingerly I wrapped my fingers and thumbs around a thin film – skin is a delicate matter – and oh so gently and slowly I stripped a layer from most of my forehead.
- Above my right eyebrow my skin split, but I continued pulling at a diagonal across the bridge of my nose and left cheek.
- I dropped my hands to study myself in the mirror.
- None of my expectations were fulfilled.
- No blood.
- No scars.
- No revulsion at the exposure.
- Instead, new skin, shiny and tender, lay next to the wrinkles and leather of my old face, and my eyes, both the new one and the old one, stared back at me, freed and focused.
There are several things that happen when I lay out my poems in sentences like this. At the most basic level, I clean up some punctuation issues. For example, when copying the poem out in the numbered form above, I omitted three unnecessary commas. Please let me know if there are other grammatical errors like this.
Secondly, I can see more clearly the lengths of my sentences. I don’t watch for sentence length (or sentence construction, for that matter) while drafting my poems, focusing instead on meaning and sound, but I do pay attention to line length in crafting my poems. In this particular poem, there is a short introductory sentence (is this sentence even needed?), followed by a long compound complex sentence that contains the majority of the action. This sentence, in my opinion, has to be long in order to convey the action as one continuing motion and to draw out that motion over time. This wasn’t a quick stripping of a Band-Aid; it took a long time to reach my nose! The action continues without interruption down to the bridge of the nose where a shift occurs – the skin splits – and therefore a shift to a new sentence complements this. This is followed by two short sentences and three sentence fragments and I consider these to be a transition to the revelation in the poem – that exposure, in this case at least, is a good thing, not gruesome, but liberating.
Thirdly, laying out the poem in sentences allows me to double check the unfolding of the narration. This is extremely helpful in making sure that details are placed in the “correct” order so that the images are constructed in the readers mind. Let’s look at the second sentence where most of the action takes place:
Starting at the hairline, I massaged my scalp until it curled under my fingertips, and gingerly I wrapped my fingers and thumbs around a thin film – skin is a delicate matter – and oh so gently and slowly I stripped a layer from most of my forehead.
Does this fold out the action in a sequence that you can follow? Can you picture massaging your head at the hairline and getting hold of a layer of skin and peeling it like a the layer of adhesive from the back of sticky contact paper? At first I had the words “hairline” and “scalp” switched in the sentence. Writing it out made me realize that that made no sense at all. Starting at the scalp? Your scalp covers your entire head. No, I started at the hairline. What other confusion is there in the sentence? Is the interjection “skin is a delicate matter” a distracting unnecessary commentary, or does it convey something more and connect the physical action with a meaning beyond the literal? Laying out the sentence like this allows me to double check the image-building of the action.
In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte states, “Cohesion that seems smooth and relaxed is sometimes quite hard to get and is always a matter, partly, of syntactic choices – from the straightforward use of connectors to the most ingenious patternings” (251).
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