Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
The opening and closing poems in Skins and Bones offer a useful framework for interpreting the entire volume. The first piece, “C’koy’u, Old Woman,” introduces the cosmic feminine creative power informing Allen’s holistic worldview. This sixteen-line poem, which could be described as a twentieth century version of traditional American Indian...
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- Critical Essays
The opening and closing poems in Skins and Bones offer a useful framework for interpreting the entire volume. The first piece, “C’koy’u, Old Woman,” introduces the cosmic feminine creative power informing Allen’s holistic worldview. This sixteen-line poem, which could be described as a twentieth century version of traditional American Indian creation songs, provides the basis for several recurring themes: the interconnections between natural and supernatural life explored in “Arousings,” “Sightings I: Muskogee Tradition,” and “Sightings II”; the desire for renewal expressed in “Teaching Poetry at Votech High, Santa Fe, the Week John Lennon Was Shot,” “Grandma’s Dying Poem,” and “Something Fragile, Broken”; and an intricate pattern of continuity and change developed in “Molly Brant, Iroquois Matron, Speaks,” “Taku Skanskan,” and “Myth/Telling—Dream/Showing.” The final poem, “New Birth,” reaffirms the forward-looking, visionary perspective underlying the entire collection. In this chantlike invocation to change, Allen uses short, flowing lines to replicate the ongoing transformative process she describes throughout Skins and Bones.
She acknowledges the importance of death and destruction; however, as in previous pieces such as “Teaching Poetry at Votech High” and “Grandma’s Dying Poem,” she combines the acceptance of loss with the reaffirmation of survival, transformation, and renewal. Similarly, in “Iroquois Sunday: Watertown, 1982” and “Taking a Visitor to See the Ruins,” Allen depicts the reemergence of traditional beliefs in modern contexts.
The poems collected in the first section of Skins and Bones provide the most explicit illustration of Allen’s feminist perspective. By associating the cosmic feminine force introduced in the opening poem with positive images of female identity, Allen uses revisionist mythmaking to construct an empowering tradition of autonomous women. As she retells the stories of Eve, Malinche, Molly Brant, Sacagawea, and Pocahontas from a feminist point of view, she provides self-affirming alternatives to patriarchal myths of feminine evil. In “Eve the Fox,” for example, she replaces the well-known Genesis account of the serpent’s seduction of Eve and the subsequent fall into sin with a celebration of women’s sexuality and physical beauty. Similarly, in “Malinalli, La Malinche, to Cortes, Conquistador,” “Pocahontas to Her English Husband, John Rolfe,” “Molly Brant,” and “The One Who Skins Cats,” Allen uses first-person narration to rewrite the commonly accepted stories of these Indian women. Unlike conventional accounts, which generally depict these women either as traitors concerned only with personal benefit or as weak-willed, innocent victims overpowered by forces beyond their control, Allen portrays them as conscious agents of change who subversively use European colonizers to undermine patriarchal social structures. Moreover, by identifying them with culturally specific manifestations of the feminine creative power described in “C’koy’u, Old Woman,” she affirms her gynecentric worldview. For example in “Malinalli” she associates Malinche with Coatlicue, an ancient Mesoamerican serpent goddess, and in “The One Who Skins Cats” she identifies Sacagawea with the Mayan female creator figure Xmucané, or “grandmother of the sun.”
Allen continues her construction of a personalized gynecentric tradition in the following sections by identifying this creative feminine force with transformation and rebirth. In “Grandma’s Dying Poem,” for example, she simultaneously speculates on the way in which her own personality and lifestyle have been shaped by her grandmother’s and replaces stereotypical views of womanhood with accounts of strong, defiant women. In other poems, such as “Arousings,” “Weed,” and “What the Moon Said,” she revises conventional associations of women with nature to develop affirmative images of autonomous yet interconnected female identities.
Allen’s gynecentric worldview shapes her social critique as well. In “The One Who Skins Cats” and “Horns of a Dilemma,” for example, Allen contrasts her belief in the interrelatedness of all forms of existence with the fragmentation and hierarchical social structures found in patriarchal cultures. In “Molly Brant,” “Coyote Jungle,” and “Teaching Poetry at Votech High,” she critically explores twentieth century North Americans’ loss of vision and spiritual paralysis, or what she describes in the latter poem as “soul sickness.” Yet in Allen’s holistic worldview, vision and action must work together. Thus, in “Fantasia Revolution,” she criticizes those who desire transformation yet become paralyzed and lost in their dreams. Rather than work for social change, the people Allen describes escape into their visions of utopian living conditions, abundance, and peaceful revolution.
The divers tones and styles further reinforce Allen’s gynecentric, spirit-based worldview. She uses accessible language and incorporates elements of Indian oral traditions into her work, thus achieving an elegant simplicity that corresponds to the cosmic pattern of continuance and transformation she describes throughout Skins and Bones. She employs a variety of speaking voices, ranging from celebration to humor to lament, and utilizes a number of different poetic forms, including traditional Indian chants and healing songs, elegies, and free verse. Although Allen’s tone occasionally borders on resignation, her confidence in a cosmic feminine power enables her to combine the acceptance of loss with the assurance of survival and the promise of transformation.