Review: Skeleton Coast by Elizabeth Arnold

by

Skeleton Coast (Flood Editions) opens with an epigraph from George Herbert’s 17th century poem, “The Temper (I).” Herbert’s poem recounts his soul’s ecstasy and anguish, begging of God, “rack me not to such a vast extent,” but, in the stanza Elizabeth Arnold quotes, Herbert submits to God’s torture: “Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:/This is but tuning of my breast,/To make the music better.” The epigraph accurately represents Skeleton Coast’s ethos: poems are the offspring of suffering and the wisdom it offers. Extended rumination and imagistic narrative often culminate in terse insights about loss, disillusion, and pain, which, through references to history, acquire a mythical quality: “I scratched his name and number out/with the intensity of the early Copts//chiseling at the heads of former gods.” With a clear, vernacular diction, hard line breaks, strong imagery, and frequent short lines, Arnold is, at her best, a writer who achieves immediacy while asserting a consciousness—though private and personal—of history and tradition.