An Arrangement of Skin
by Anna Journey
Published 2017 by Counterpoint Press
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 9781619028470
by Noah Sanders
The word “taxidermy” is one rife with images of dead, stuffed animals, moments frozen in time. When translated from Latin, it becomes “an arrangement of skin” the simple image of taxidermy now a messier, a gorier image of our human covering, rearranged, laid bare, revealing all that lies beneath. In the titular first essay of poet Anna Journey’s debut collection, An Arrangement of Skin, she writes of visiting famed Parisian taxidermy studio, Deyrolle. In describing the stuffed, dead animals she sees there, she writes, “I imagined each creature held a history inside it, the intricacies of a lived life, with its shifting landscapes and loves.”
Journey’s essays beautifully chart this idea: the stacking of histories that lay beneath our skin and the ability of art—poetry especially—to expose the layers and layers of experience, oftentimes morbid, that shapes them forward and back. The essays in An Arrangement of Skin cover a fascinating array of subjects—javelinas, wisteria, a tattoo artist named Captain Morgan—but the prevailing subject in every chapter is Journey herself, her history, her family, her friends and lovers. Each essay is a deep delve into her own past and those stories, those moments frozen in amber, that have piled atop each other to make her what she is today.
An Arrangement of Skin is bookended by essays on taxidermy—“Birds 101” and “Modifying The Badger,” Journey’s own taxidermy tutelage, used as thematic bookends. In “Birds 101” she remakes a simple starling, and her experience is one of merely capturing the moment, of using the gussying up of death to celebrate “the wonders, textures, and varieties of life.” The understanding Journey comes to is superficial in nature, a beginning, or as Journey writes of preparing the bird, “I opened it up and entered as if turning the first page of a story.”
“Modifying The Badger” finds Journey returning to the act of taxidermy, with the author and the reader now privy to her personal arrangement of skin. In recreating a boar raccoon, a more involved, laborious process, Journey discovers that capturing a moment is similar to the creation of poetry, or any art; she writes, “By conjuring a fantastic world in which this impossible form might exist… we’re offered a moment that testifies to the beauty, bittersweetness, and gravity of impermanence.” The dead animal is an object, as is a poem or a tattoo or a human being, and though we see these as singular caught images, they are merely a covering, a skin even, for the myriad experiences of life, contained within.
Journey is a stunning writer, clear and lyrical, her poetry background enabling descriptions of the most mundane experience to come tearing and frothing off the page. A starling’s skin is “wheat-colored chain mail for an airborne knight,” while wisteria is “flamboyant as a drag queen, wild as a psychedelic grapevine.” She crafts her own world so beautifully, with so much of her own history revealed that it is difficult not to tear through the essays like a pulpy thriller, always wanting to know what tidbit Journey will explore next.
Every essay focuses on an “object”—her cuckolded ex-boyfriend Carrick and his collection of stand-up basses or the story of Bluebeard—but the object that is best dissected, laid bare, is Journey herself. Her mother is the star of the essay, “The Guineveres,” a quirky, entirely morbid woman who uses dark stories to impress lessons upon her two daughters. But Journey pulls the curtain back, a taxidermist peeling back the skin, revealing the stories that shaped her mom: her years as a stage actor, a folk singer, a camp counselor, to name a few. In exploring her mother’s history, Journey is compelled to explore her grandfather’s history, the history of race relations in The South, the history and importance of folk music and field historians, The Lomaxes, and on and on. All of it now, her own shared history helping to shape the object that is the author. The book becomes an exploration of the idea of who she, the object explored, is, and how though she shapes our own stories just through thinking and living, in the end we are simply the continuation of every other story, great or small. If we are only able to remember in scenes, frozen moments, than Journey takes it upon herself to make us understand and appreciate the pulsing entrails of experience that beat below all of them.
An Arrangement of Skin contains a bigger idea though, about just how poetry or writing or words, hell, creation itself allows us to not only retain our memories, but to explore them, to find meaning in them, to dig deeper and deeper, no bottom ever in sight. This brilliant collection, shows us how the object, and the artistic interpretation laid across this object allows it, and the dangling strands of story and narrative that make it up, to stretch across time, generations, and family; to become something bigger—a single sliver of the greater public consciousness.