Skins on the Earth

By Primus St. John; @1976, Copper Canyon Press.

Primus St. John was born in New York City and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He is an African American poet and a faculty member in the English Department at Portland State University. Skins on the Earth is his first collection of poems.

St. John is well known for his poem, “Dreamer,” which isn’t in this collection. I bought this book around 2004 when I was thinking about studying poetry at Portland State University. Life started happening around that time, and I never read it.

In Skins on the Earth, you can really see St. John’s development as a poet. The second section is so much more attainable than the first. While his imagery is vivid, his poems are often difficult to penetrate. Colors and images reappear and weave throughout the lines: white, black, red, light, darkness, water, skins, God. Often I am almost there before I’m lost. I’m not always sure I know what he’s saying.

Something about race and inequality. Of those things, I am sure, but more? There seems to be a code here that I can’t understand. Perhaps a language or a culture that I am not part of. What does it mean: “I’ve left home and leaned so far I’m almost zero”? I feel like I need to read them a second and third time.

Then there are lines which are powerful in their clarity:
“In a dark town, light is like a ragged scar.”

and

“It is our innocence that makes us vicious.”

The poems in this collection that really spoke to me were:
All the Way Home
The Fountain
Southern Comfort
Field
Westward Expansion

St John’s poetry makes me work and stretch. I suppose that’s not a bad thing.

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