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The Work Ethic of the Common Fly: still shots from the journey

By: Louie Skipper
Reviewed by: Sydney F. Cummings
Settlement House, 2007
$12, Paperback

Louie Skipper’s third major book of poetry, a “verse autobiography,” titled The Work Ethic of the Common Fly: Still Shots from the Journey, is a compilation of fifty-five poems, divided into four sections: Prologue, One, Two, and Three. All of the poems, except the Prologue and the last poem in Three, which are couplets, are three-stanza poems of varying length in free verse. Its theme is not only time but the influence of time past on the present and both of these on the future. The epigraph Skipper has chosen comes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: ”And where is what I started for so long ago / And why is it yet unfound?” Clearly, Skipper has been influenced by Whitman, as Whitman in the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass says, “The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is.”

At the conclusion of the Prologue the narrator invites the reader into his poem: “Bear with me for now, for telling you / what has befallen me.” The connotation of befallen relies heavily on misfortune, but the mood of the work does not dwell on misfortune or misery. The speaker is constantly aware of the brevity of life and how little he has accomplished in the time that has been given him. He wonders humbly at the world and lets innocent, sometimes foolish questions, pop into his thoughts. This questioning appears greater in part One where the naivete of the question itself generates some humor. For example, “Not having found the waters, / What had God eaten for his supper / the night before he dreamed he was swimming?” or “Is green the only living daughter of yellow and blue?” We can see that Skipper’s use of personification in the latter example as well as in the following also produces humor: “Nouns with their hands in the air, / verbs barking out their orders,” and “Does the ‘Book of Leviticus’ / ever send out soldiers / to patrol the verses of the ‘Psalms’?”

Throughout the work the persona imparts his faith in God and his respect for all creation, which he says did not come to him until he was thirty-five. The second part of the title, “still shots from the journey,” implies that the speaker has focused in a Wordsworthian, child-like mood on what interests him in life and that he has captured these in still shots.

One theme that I found particularly interesting is the “making” of poetry. In #19 from Section One, Skipper writes, ”All that I have has found another master / and travels with him alone. / A poem in my own hand that goes on without / my help and my knowledge.” Like Coleridge, Skipper here acknowledges the mystery of creativity. He speaks of making poetry as a natural relationship, “the way the wind brings the rain before it falls.” In stanza #3 he makes an allusion to a popular theological discourse: “A poem that depends upon such mystery / words get lost along the way. / The heart has a natural cadence my mind learns so clumsily.” This reference is to the modern idea that the heart is just as important as the mind, that the eighteen- inch distance between the heart and the head, the intuitive and the rational, is for most of us a long and difficult distance to cross.

Paul Zimmer has called Skipper a metaphysical poet; that is, he deals with “the complexities and contradictions” of life in a style that is intellectual and analytical, but the diction is simple while the imagery may be drawn from the commonplace or the esoteric. Many of the poems in Work Ethic exhibit these characteristics. Again, the “Prologue” speaks to this as a theological premise: “We / cannot choose unless we are first chosen.” That is, God seeks us, offering grace, before we seek him.

Time is a dominant theme in this third volume of Skipper’s poetry as well as respect for “all creatures great and small.” He emphasizes visual rather than aural imagery and sometimes the child-like questions appear to interrupt the mood. But, taken as a whole, this volume has a stylistic freshness that delights.

Sydney F. Cummings lives in Tuscaloosa.

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