Felicity Plunkett reviews The Measure of Skin by Ramon Loyola
The Measure of Skin
by Ramon Loyola
Reviewed by FELICITY PLUNKETT
Poets have recurrent signatures – words, images, modes and motifs – imprints unique as a fingerprint’s whorl. For Philippines-born poet, editor, lawyer and writer of short fiction, Ramon Loyola, one of these is just this: images of skin, literal and figurative, and an exploration of the ways skin communicates and mediates unique histories.
Throughout his work – three poetry collections, an experimental prose-poetry memoir The Heaving Pavement and a series of comic zines Barney Barnes and Friends – embodiment, skin and porousness recur as images conveying ideas of vulnerability, injury and tenderness.
The Measure of Skin is one of ten titles in Vagabond Press’ vivid deciBels 3 suite, meticulously edited by Michelle Cahill, co-edited with Dimitra Harvey. It sits alongside work by, among others, Pakistan-born Misbah, a visionary weaver of lyric prose-poetry slivers, versions of which were previously short-listed for the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize; Anna Jacobson, winner of that same prize in 2018, whose debut collection Amnesia Findings (forthcoming, UQP) charts the loss and repair of memory through exquisite poems exploring trauma and resilience, Jewish diaspora, injury and healing; and Jessie Tu, one of whose poems was short-listed in Australian Book Review’s 2017 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. deciBels series 3 is gloriously expansive, highlighting a divergent array of poetics.
The poems in Loyola’s The Measure of Skin return to the skin of the speaker’s own body, and that of his lovers, who, bound in the skin of their own stories, have ‘revelled in my skin’. There is skin ‘bound to be touched’, scented with ‘jasmine hint’; the crease of articulate scars, patterned with hair and bruises or more figuratively – ‘parched skin quenched/ Of the thirst for clear answers’ by the wash of seawater. Loyola’s poetry includes all the senses. There are almost palpable textures of ‘glistened skin’, ‘rough… stamens in the rain’ and skin lit and warmed by rays of sunshine. And there is the hue of skin, a question crucial to this collection’s consideration of identity, loss, displacement and connection.
Skin – the soft tissue that covers us – is a layered, hard-working organ that holds us together and provides insulation and protection from pathogens. Its pores do the work of letting in and letting out. It may be a site of injury or healing, associated with bonding, lovemaking and bliss as well as with violence and wounding.
Language is a skin, writes Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. Words are the surface of layered lexical histories. To peel back layers of the word skin we find the Old Norse skinn – animal hide – itself traceable back to the Proto-Germanic skinth from which come words in various languages meaning to peel back, flay, cut; the scales of a fish or a tree’s bark. There are Latin seeds and Sanskrit ones.
The original syllable, then, moves through languages, layered and displaced. It has left its home to become important in another place. It leaves its flakes in languages across the world.
Just as a word does, so do human beings. In ‘For the Sleepwalkers’, Edward Hirsch imagines sleepwalkers – a metaphor for any of us wandering through this world – as exemplars of what it is to trust and risk, moving through ‘the skin of another life’ in their sleep:
We have to learn to trust our hearts like that.
We have to learn the desperate faith of sleep-
walkers who rise out of their calm beds
and walk through the skin of another life.
We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness
and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.
When Barthes writes that language is a skin, his context is the citational poetics of A Lover’s Discourse, a book he prefaces with a description of offering the reader: ‘a discursive site: the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak.’
The terrain of Loyola’s poems of skin and skinlessness is similar. In an interview with Tony Messenger, he writes about an instigating self-scrutiny as the basis for exploring layers of self and other – ‘to know myself down to the bone in order to confront the many possibilities – delicious and sordid – inherent in the realms outside my own skin.’
Often, these poems contain a ‘you’ towards whom their open, often amorous words are directed. There are quiet poems of pillow-talk, intimate words the reader is positioned to overhear. The book’s first line ‘your hands feel familiar’ reaches towards a sense of the familiar; the affinity that causes the speaker to wonder – and wander – through a dance of possibilities, expressed as neat rhyming paths in the final stanza: ‘go away’, ‘want to say’ and going ‘astray’ are poised as the lover’s options.
Rhyme measures the options, as Loyola’s poems place skin and metrics side-by-side. This weighing-up that shapes the first poem, ‘Familiar’, sets the tone. Putting skin together with measure is a poetic experiment – a kind of scientific and emotional assay – as the poems assess losses and gain, connection and loss, and the ways the body holds memories of trauma and joy. So when a lover’s hands here feel ‘familiar’, the speaker’s plan – (‘i only meant to say hello/ to wish you well on your way but) – tips into indecision, the ‘What is to be done?’ that prefaces Barthes’ book – ‘I bind myself in calculations’.
Among these calculations, Loyola’s poems measure alternatives. In ‘Monkey Suit’, he imagines his lover’s body in the frank unabashed images these poems revel in: ‘His sex is big. His sex is the bomb.’ Part of this is its whiteness: ‘There is never anything whiter… than the shape of his shiny white buttocks’. On the other hand, the speaker’s -assessment is at best self-ironising, at other times directly abject and self-flagellating. This is often a refreshing riposte to a culture commodifying beauty, and at times an unabashed lament. It also suggests a weighing-up of negative and even racist assessments of his own body. He imagines his own sex as ‘coarse’, ‘crooked’ and ‘foul’, yet this is weighed against the pleasure and consolation of connection. The poem’s last stanza ends with a kind of volta, a ‘but’, and a reparative image of afterglow: ‘the same sweetness of souls’, which suggests a rejection of superficial, cruel assessments.
Loyola mediates the measuring of beauty and bodies, balancing perfection and imperfections through discourses of skin binding mind and body. As metaphor does its traversing of bridges, so do Loyola’s speakers and lovers, over empathy’s crossings. This is suggested in the poems’ mode of invocation, invitation: ardent reachings-out, or dialogic inner reflections. Love might be, as Loyola writes in ‘In All the Broken Places’ ‘[u]nbridled, perilous or kind’, but whatever its composition, it ‘steeps the heart and mind’. ‘Touch me’, he writes in ‘Touch Me Where It Hurts’, where ‘my heart sits quietly’; in the place of a wound that ‘does not hurt’.
Loyola’s poems meld a lawyer’s weighing-up with a poetics of skin and vulnerability, where the poems’ speakers wander as outsiders, looking in, or looking into themselves. The poem are shaped along these axes, with balance and symmetry at the levels of structure and the patterning of images, and an imagistic wildness and tonal intimacy in their expression of homoeroticism.
I last saw Loyola at a poetry reading in May. The alignment of our interests had nurtured a gentle online friendship, and we clasped hands with a sense of the weight of that bridge. This was the way of Loyola’s presence in the poetry community. He was a passionate reader of others’ work, a modest promoter of his own, and his interactions had a steady radiance and kindness to them.
In September, Ramon Loyola died suddenly following after suffering a brain aneurysm. The shock and pain of this for his family and loved ones is inestimable, and the loss to the community of poets he nurtured and contributed to with such exemplary generosity is deep.
Writing about Loyola’s poetry of intimate address and mapping this onto the similarly ruminative slivers that make up Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, I think of the loneliness each writer evokes, as part of our experience of love. In ‘No Answer’ Barthes writes:
Like a bad concert hall, affective space contains dead spots where the sound fails to circulate. – The perfect interlocutor, the friend, is he not the one who constructs around you the greatest possible resonance? Cannot friendship be defined as a space with total sonority?
In reading The Measure of Skin — first when it was published, now in Loyola’s absence, his poems have a consolatory continuance. Reading his work continues to make us interlocutors in the vibrant spaces his poetry creates.
- Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 3.
- Barthes, p. 63.
- Interview, Tony Messenger interviews Ramon Loyola, Messenger’s Booker (and more): https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2018/06/18/the-measure-of-kin-ramon-loyola-plus-bonus-poet-interview/, np.
FELICITY PLUNKETT’S Vanishing Point (UQP, 2009) won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize and was short-listed for several other awards. Seastrands (2011) was published in Vagabond Press’ Rare Objects series. She edited Thirty Australian Poets (UQP, 2011). A Kinder Sea is forthcoming early in 2020.