In Skin Horse the apocalypse is ever-present. Just as Revelation literally reveals the cultural anxieties of first millennium Christians and their fears of impending apocalypse so too Skin Horse is an apocalyptic text for our times.
One way in which Revelation is called to mind is through an abject erotics that runs through Skin Horse. This allows for the centrality of those subjects that would usually be ‘radically excluded’ or ‘jettisoned’ (in the words of psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1984)) from erotic discourse. These subjects range from the barely recognisably human (corpses) to non-mammalian, alien life forms (lizard, squids). Near the beginning of the poem there is a highly sexualised, cultic moment that combines an erotics of death with polymorphous sexuality:
your old friends
the naked squids
hung from a tree branch
The figure of the squid can be read in two ways: firstly, the scene sits generically within a horror narrative where ‘friends’ are ‘screaming’ ‘naked’ and ‘hung from a tree branch’; however, there is a second reading which perceives the naked squid as polymorphous and multivalent, a creature which does not conform to a neat binary and which is fleshly, inviting and the object of desire. The conjunction of ‘friends’ with ‘naked’, ‘screaming’ and ‘hung’ belong to the lexicon of sexual desire. This close relationship between sexual desire and death allows the radical possibilities of necrophilia as a form of alternative sexual strategy to be conceived. The following lines reinforce this dismantling of the heteronormative paradigm:
Hanging the pond
and reaching up to your utter
It unwifes me.
It unwifes me.
Unwifes me like a slid-in skin. Unwifes me. Unwifes me.
Cronk’s insistence here is on transcendent sexuality. The alien sexuality of the ‘lizard orgy’ completes the ‘utter metamorphosis’ of the addressee. The final repetition of ‘unwifes’ is politically radical, breaking apart heteronormativity, female subservience, and the legal enforcement of patriarchal structures.
Skin Horse is deeply committed to the dismantling of binaries. Not only does the poem refuse to distinguish between separate categories of the plastic and the static, the authentic and the fake, but it also insists on a specific kind of futurity which relies on the melding of the banal and the sacred through lines such as: ‘A crystal ball flyer in my bag’ and ‘What lipstick lights. Through a branch, one creeped to scream.’ The crystal ball flyer is the perfect example of the sacred throwaway object: both the flyer and the crystal ball it represents are plastic objects — the flyer is made from cheap, toxic materials and the crystal ball is a symbol of the plasticity of future and present. The weight accorded to the occult potential of the crystal ball is undercut by the tackiness and commerciality of the flyer. The ‘lipstick lights’ that call to mind a cosmetic artificiality are somehow luminous. This image of bright, glowing, colours illuminating a part of the forest where one ‘creeped to scream’ is unsettling, the childlike innocence of the lipsticks are displaced by the potential site of violence and trauma invoked by the scream. This tension is present throughout the poem, and the theme of violence to children is repeated in the line:
A concrete head rises doomily from a parking lot
to watch children come falling in their own awful ketchup.
This line is, again, a melding of the banal and the numinous, the natural and the synthetic. ‘Ketchup’ is a widely understood signifier for fake blood and calls to mind low budget slasher films, Halloween costumes, junk food and diners. To have the children ‘falling in their own awful ketchup’ hints at a sadistic desire to enact violence and perhaps even murder. Though this desire is focalised through the ‘concrete head’ rising ‘doomily’ from a ‘parking lot’, which on first read could be considered as a detached, potentially absurd point of view, there is an alignment between the man-made concrete and the man-made ketchup. There is an entire world of human endeavour invoked in this line, it is not nature that is to be feared, but the humans who watch impassively as children continue to suffer violence from man-made causes.
There are also several instances of the natural world functioning in a man-made way either as a technological space or as a museum. Near the beginning of the poem the narrator of Skin Horse writes that they ‘came to cringe at the miniature eggs’ followed shortly afterwards by an announcement that ‘I heard of the trees typewritering.’ In these statements there is a sense that a human entity is dominating the landscape of Skin Horse and applying cultural content to it. The museum-like appropriation of the ‘miniature eggs’ has an echo of Fabergé, and the ‘typewritering trees’ present an uncanny image of automatic writing, the fusion of the natural and the technological. Other examples of artificial matter include ‘gloves’, an ‘ashtray’ which ‘spills on and on the edge of a pink seat,’ and ‘nylons’. These everyday objects take on a plastic significance, the ashtray is a repository for waste, and the mingling of the ash with the ‘pink seat’ suggests an uneasy disruption of categories. The used, carcinogenic, ash despoils the homely pink seat. The gloves become ‘enchanted’ and ‘The place is polyester.’ Everyday, cheap materials take on transcendent properties in the world of Skin Horse. This transcendence can also take on a strong erotic charge when artificial objects are put to sadomasochistic use:
the dress-shoe blister gone wet.
This pleather strap
On a lap I dress for dinner.
I see to my old man’s tongue
caught on a tooth
just as the word tunnel
I smack it out on a leather wall.
The ‘dress-shoe’ and the ‘pleather strap’ are both related to notorious elements of fetishism: high-heeled shoes and spankings. The pinching of the dress shoe, causing blisters, indicates physical pain associated with the foot: a congruence of masochism and fetishism at a single site. That the blister has ‘gone wet’ has overt sexual connotations. The ‘pleather strap’, a plastic, artificial material which replicates the cruelty of animal leather is discussed in relation to ‘lap’, ‘tooth’ and ‘tongue’ and has clear sexual overtones. The final line in this stanza: ‘I smack it out on a leather wall’ commingles the natural and the artificial and describes an act of onomatopoeic violence that brings the reader back to the image of the strap.
The fetishised element becomes abjected, it is partialised, synecdochic, and cast out of a symbiotic wholeness. Yet it also regulates sexual practices and confines them to specific strictures. Kristeva’s formulation of the abject could be described as regulatory. By understanding the abject as that which is ‘cast out of the symbolic order’ she thereby defines what the symbolic order is. Cronk, however, does not perform abjection in such a definitive manner; she does not use abjection to regulate, but rather to reveal, in the tradition of apocalyptic texts. The natural world in Skin Horse is a disaster zone, the characters, and by implication the reader, are ‘stepping on a million glass roaches’, they ‘die and rush into the planet.’ Animals, humans, and objects are interchangeable elements of atrocity kitsch. In this interconnected, multivalent universe there is no radical exclusion. Skin Horse is magical, it is prescient, and it has a nasty allure.