Skin Horse

By Olivia Cronk


Action Books
February 2012

Reviewed by Lisa A. Flowers


Olivia Cronk's murmury, ouijaish Skin Horse zigzags from country roads to urban decay to transatlantic flights in a matter of seconds. The book might be the musing of an Alzheimer's patient flitting dreamily through time (from girlhood to cronehood), or the mumblings of children's storybooks passing in and out of each other's dreams. We might abruptly find ourselves in Brer Rabbit's briar patch, "in the bowl around us / its thistles" or in transmigratory Gershwinesque/Sinatra numbers, with people bidding adieu to

willing foxes of other [lives]

the luscious terrors of the local gentry

And their blonde heads in Continentals.

Or Cronk might abruptly cut off the power of the book and stop the text, showing us how "the whole room is on display . . . / everything  is as a stage; turn around and peer into the storefront across the street." Therein, we might see, Rear Window like, the "terrifying . . . back of a man . . . the hands busy with something in the sink," or a Lynchian "creamed corn dinner" in a deep red room—then tumble out into a Henry Dargeresque vision where "a head rises doomily from the parking lot / To watch children falling in their own awful ketchup." Voices moaning "got trouble my jar of pills / got bells all my dead ones" might be answered, several pages later, by world-weary replies of "I am indeed a nurse / But I'm wearing out." Or we might sweep abruptly into Chanderland, with gangsters muttering in Bogartese:

Comb the corpse's hair

With the hands half in the cigarette

Half in the low talk

Souls "die and rush into the planet"; the four seasons are more like "peels of skin." One page may be clustered with images; the next, nearly empty ("In this version of the world, I have nothing to tell"). Skin Horse does not ask us to understand, but to simply follow images and trust them, without context—as the newly dead, say, follow the holy light without knowing where it's going.  Readers not willing to let themselves become the yarn and be woven into Cronk's tapestry will—like John Ashbery's "thread [that] ended up on the floor"—miss the tapestry altogether. "I forgot the thread," Cronk herself says, at the end of one page, and:

In this place

we may not

make arms

even to

open the nets of what

the arms

say is time. Not even then. My body is changing.

The author is unafraid of change, and, like Pound, admirably unafraid of writing in references that might be (ostensibly or permanently) obscure. A page that begins

And born to the weary weave of prairie,

and woven it all

Evokes, in fact, "Canto I"'s opening:

And then went down to the ship

Set keel to breakers

Pound was speaking of Odysseus, but Cronk's allusions, when they exist, remain tantalizingly unexplicated. Sudden, unaccompanied burgeonings/ outbursts like these are more than enough to bring us straight into the room:

Your kind of tongue grows anywhere

And lasers through the slats


And still young as shooting…

We're letting in wet robins.

Not that a sense of dread, and a purely intellectual and terribly hyper-aware one at that, isn't present. We know this because we know from Cronk what "the weight of a mouth rouging its gathers" feels like; know about "the fancy mantle and the way it feels to wear out the body." We also recognize more than a little about the irreconcilable horrors of the time-space continuum, the

horrid looping

seeing me twice, ten, times, ten, over

in the yard

another yard down the street

And how close those horrors can come to the impossibility of modern ways of travel:

I am touching the wall of the transatlantic flight. I got dressed in a dark blue dress and am afraid. Just hours ago it was winter and spring.

Hard up for

Rolling the boundless bed

And late again


Skin Horse is really a mystery story, presented in folktales, or vignettes told by Ouija boards in domestic moods, their natural homey warmth overlaid by an incomprehensibility that evokes both the dark room and dark, dark, cupboard of the famous rhyme, and Plath's "The Rabbit Catcher,"

Black cupboard was many ends-

What moaning ride in the country:

He on the hills puffed and swelled his gland.

Afterwards a rabbit's throat was less.

Come a long road, babied hickory

As we clip down the lane, we overhear what could be the lovesick sexual moaning of dryads in copses:

I wished the mouth of this tree
Calling out for its finger
For which I long

And, from out of the dense forest, suddenly find ourselves in a clearing with the heroine of Grimm's "The Brother and Sister," with her mantle and candle in the snow: "Think of my little albino deer / Alone in the winter garden"

Clocks melt, as in Dali, flesh turning to gruel:

A mirrored wall has been set up to reflect a video player and on it is    . And I think that something is wrong when     try, in the video, to reach across the coffee table to adjust a dripping book. It does not drip right. The video seems corroded.     even look around, like     are being seen in the many mirrors.

 Other lines evoke doomed junkies muttering in Burroughs-dialect:

Got that magpie roostin your arm

So all I see is a rush-red

Ribbon of noose 

Like a maze, Cronk's book offers various ways out of itself. One method is to tunnel under the text itself, like fugitive convicts, albeit armed with portable holes, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Mazes, however, are pre-structured, and intended be navigated. Cronk invites us to slap our escape anywhere we like:

Just as the word tunnel


I smack it out on a leather wall

But our fate when in those aqueducts is not necessarily limitless. We may eventually come up into some toilet or other or fall out the end of the book into a kind of sea. Or we may meet the cosmic Roto-Rooter, a drain snake that undoes us—like original sin—all over again:

Let's go hear the pipes

announcing blood.

We are tens and tens

And benjamins.

It all got us.