Backchannel, by Emily Skillings


Read carefully each word in Backchannel, for you are warned: “Every word in this poem is a dead body.” Doughnuts and young vegetables, couches and tables, heavy artillery, cobblestones, vibrators, swans, semiotics, cash registers, vegan vitamins, male desire, cosmic tulle. Read them, conscientious of their placement next to one another, noting nods of your head, mutterings and sighs.

The term “backchannel” has its origins in linguistics, referring to a listener’s behaviors during verbal communication—those nods and mutterings that tell the speaker whether their message is understood. The term was adopted by the computing world for the online conversations happening in tandem with an event—i.e., Live Tweeting.

The poems in Backchannel create both call and response through quotidian excess and novelty. This particular excess is a spontaneous overflow of stuff, thrown together (so it seems at first) at random. Backchannel toys with our tendency to fetishize all of this stuff, simply for the sake of things and their role as sentimental placeholders in our lives.

With “Canary,” Skillings opens the chapbook with a clear message: reader, suspend your expectations: “I held my canary out for you when you said your canary felt a little droopy.” It’s coy. It seems carefree enough to put the reader at ease with the strangeness of the situation, enough to relax, lay back—“Oh, that canary feels so good—just like that.” Gradually the reader wonders if Skillings isn’t simply substituting words here, replacing the everyday with the weird. She continues: “A canary is born every 8 seconds.” Well, so are children, and now our associations not only with things but with our selves have been overturned. But when a poem turns canaries loose in its coal mine, something more is going on than one-to-one word replacement, more than birds as mere placeholders. The canary is brought into the poem as a safety measure—each poem in Backchannel is a tunnel into which both writer and reader blindly go—that canary beside us tests the air, tests the language’s capacity to deal with imagistic disorder, the total frustration of known relationships.

These poems put pressure on our dependence on the specificity of image, our insistence that so much depends on their instance. Rather, these poems avail themselves to the specificity of occasion and consciousness. How far can the poem push the madcap before all sense is lost and the canary is little more than self-signifier, more than bric-a-brac slapstick? Skillings earns this inquiry through forms as various as the things that occupy them. In “Daily Stretch for Muscles of the Arms and Legs,” the poem’s speaker repeatedly orders a plate and repeatedly waves it away:

I sat down and said bring me a plate.
They brought me a plate with nothing on it.
I waved it away.
I sat down and said bring me a plate.
They brought me a plate with nothing on it.
I waved it away.

But soon the poem complicates this Groundhog Day situation:

I sat down at the table and put my napkin in my lap
and said bring me a plate.
They brought me a plate with nothing on it.
I waved it away.
I sat down.
They brought me a plate
with nothing on it.
I waved it away.
I sat down. They brought me a plate
with nothing on it.
I waved it away.

These variations on the theme of a plate with nothing on it focus our attention away from the plate and eventually away from the speaker, the distinguished guests that she joins, and the napkin in the lap, bringing our attention instead to the line. How these small decisions alter the outcome: whether or not one requests the plate, whether or not our desire for a thing as specific as a plate means we will receive that very thing. Or will we receive a plate … but with the manifest nothing? The “nothing” that forever comes with the plate frustrates our speaker’s desires for the unique thingness of that plate, and as we read, our own surprise at this frustration creates a feedback loop, a backchannel. A thing, in Backchannel, isn’t just its own thing.

At its least effective, Backchannel’s oddities do feel simply like placeholders for the objects that more “logically” fit the poems’ contexts, as in “Siege of La Rochelle,” which beyond turning a lens on the reader’s potential to actually reckon love as a battlefield (and lodge a Pat Benatar song in the ear for several days), offers little more than an amusing conceit:

The first thing to know about running across the battlefield is
that if she’s not relaxed, she’s not going to enjoy it.

But at its strongest, Backchannel presents the conflict of unfulfilled expectations and desires through subtle shifts in the tectonics of the poems, as with the looping plate request in “Daily Stretch for Muscles of the Arms and Legs.” Likewise, the curiously-titled “Pepsi Will Bring Your Ancestors Back from the Dead,” brings a delightful humor (and a quietly exquisite music) to the book’s obfuscations:

The dream of small-dog flavored mayonnaise.
Quail party plus endive plus pearl of elk.
Capers in June. Princeton diploma remoulade.
The livers of the devoted cultural seance
American sweeteners have unearthed exclusivity.

This is the decadence of things, the first-world dilemma of excessive sweetness, and this is where we find ourselves at the end of 2014: in which “Everything is all good, unsaid, sorted out now.” As Skillings writes in what may be the most enchanting poem of the collection, “Bakelite Ridge”:

Old America cools its heels in the archive
Wild and pliant, the wind smelling of sulfur
Bargain basements flood with gentle toys
Arranged on asphalt or hung like arguments

Backchannel asks us to put our presumptions in check, to come to terms with our complacency regarding not only the stuff around us but what that stuff implies for class and race and status, our selves as our own canaries, our own coal mines.

Backchannel, by Emily Skillings. Portland, Oregon: Poor Claudia. $10.00, paper.

Meagan Wilson is from Colorado. Her poems have appeared in Anomalous, Anti-, Collective Exile, and H_NGM_N, among others. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a student in Colorado State University’s literature program.

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