Reviewed by Robin Renée
When you read Jan Steckel’s Like Flesh Covers Bone (Zeitgeist Press, 2018), be prepared. This, however, is a trick prescription. To be prepared for this journey is to be prepared for turns of phrase and jagged edges you will never quite see coming. The book is arranged into sections that mirror the steps of surgery— Incise, Dissect, Ligate, Excise, and Suture—which serves as the best indicator of what is to come.
The Incise section cuts from its first words. It peers unflinchingly at the tragedy of murder for the crime of living while black (“The Fall”). It sees imperialism, anti-Semitism, and pulls back the drapes to witness pain endured by women behind great men’s glory (“Mrs. Pap”). Word-play, sadomasochism, sexual intrigue, and real-world horror are bound together in an exciting, impossible knot in “Carnal Barker.” These poems embody politics but do not preach. Messages to be found are blended into and alongside lines of deep insight into human nature and loved ones in particular. There is precision word play throughout that disguises and reveals the poet’s scalpel.
Part two, Dissect, maintains the work’s intensity with a bit more remove. It is, overall, a section of close observation. In the wonderfully queer “Intersection,” words that may judge in other contexts occur by simple way of description:
I am a woman, but there’s a man in me
He’s a bit of a fop, sort of a pansy . . .
. . . Why shouldn’t everything about me be fluid?
I’m a squishy skin-bag of water and salt,
ocean inside and out.
In Ligate, we find ourselves moving deeper into the experience. Some bits are tied up together, though they are not made discrete. Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of messy lives of sex, death, desires, pain, private joys, and desperate violence. It all intermingles uncomfortably in true-to-the-world accuracy. See “Bisexual Pixies” followed by “The Last Word” and “Just Black.” Excise cuts away in moments with plain-spoken truth as in the devastating “Why They Got Deported” and the stark metaphor of “Frog Soup.” “Too Hot for Band Camp” opens with terrific lines that beg for an immediate reread: “They wanted their daughter to go to Stanford/where they had met, but she loved fire.”
As with the five stages of grief, darker expressions such as rage and confusion give way to a greater sense of acceptance and healing in this book’s fifth section, Suture. Life’s complications haven’t gone anywhere, but the ways of seeing have shifted. In “Dinner Party,” we read:
It’s streams of conversation
coalescing and separating.
It’s yellow forgiving light
instead of hard fluorescents.
It’s the candle in the painting,
the streetlight in the fog,
that moment shining skew to time
when we were all together, laughing.
The collection of poems ends with the unifying, “We the People.”
Like Flesh Covers Bone is interspersed with humor (“I Was the Chick with the Tambourine”), fun references to the work of artists including T.S. Eliot, Marvin Gaye, and Nirvana, a wealth of intriguing, recurring images, and out and proud bisexual love. Take the invitation into these tough, inspired, fleshy, bony poems.
Performing songwriter Robin Renee’s recordings include In Progress, All Six Senses, Live Devotion, spirit.rocks.sexy, and This. More at www.RobinRenee.com.
As a co-host of The Leftscape podcast, Robin spoke with Jan Steckel in “Like Flesh Covers Bone: Words with Poet Jan Steckel (Episode 43)”