Review of Winter Skin from Concho River Review (Spring/Summer 2017, Volume 31, Number 1). Reviewer: Michael G Rather, Jr..
Winter Skin feels autobiographical. It focuses on scenes from a life lived around punk shows, slaughterhouses, and losses...piles of loss. The collection gives a solid picture of a world that existed in the late 1990s, when drugs like crystal meth and crank suddenly appeared, and much of what those who lived barely above the poverty line did seems almost romantic. Winter Skin romanticizes without glamorizing.
I'm struck with the difficulty of really writing about the collection. The poems take the terrible and make it beautiful in ways that are unexpected.
The first few poems all relate to the slaughterhouse where Kendrick's narrator worked. We know slaughterhouses to be unimaginably mechanized places where "livestock" is converted to the meat we purchase at the grocery store. Kendrick's narrator works in one of these slaughterhouses for a time, and seems to describe the experience as one that did not lead to the sort of growth he expected. The narrator in "I used to work in a slaughterhouse" imagines a conversation with his son about the experience, an experience that seems devoid of meaning. The key word being "seems." The narrator seems dismissive, but then there are moments where realization breaks through and we witness a glimmer of...I do not wish to give away the poem's epiphany, but it is worth the descriptions to reach it.
Many of the poems in the collection are dichotomies. They are about relationships where two seemingly disparate things are juxtaposed and their relationships uniquely examined. This is true for the second poem "It Was the Summer When Everything Was White and Every Day Was a Feast." In this poem the slaughterhouse is often described in the language of a church, as is the dive-bar punk scene which the narrator knew. The whiteness, the clean-shaven head, the life being drained are all placed within the blender of this comparison where yet another surprise epiphany takes place.
The collection could be thought of as moments of epiphanies, mini-narratives or moment's from the narrator's young adulthood that stand out as turning points. "Theft" reveals a narrator who steals copper wire but who can find no use for the money from it. He returns to his family a penitent and re-accepted into the fold with "scorched brownies." "Gratuities" explores the diner where all go after their lower-middle-class day and find some sort of solace in the place that helps them to avoid the night. In both these poems realizations abound about the meaning of money and time and (at the risk of being cliche) life. This is in no way hyperbole. I read the collection four times in one day, and every time I found in it the same moments of epiphany I had in my late teens and twenties in similar situations. I saw the world of my young adulthood where we'd find burned-out buildings, like the one the narrator rediscovers in "Halfway Across Georgia, I Stop at the Remains of a Topless Diner." He recognizes a past there, and in the recognition lies the central conceit of these poems: out of our experiences of the banal blossoms beauty. These poems feel to me as if they document a middle-aged man as he looks back at the open wounds of his misspent youth and tries to come to terms with them. The experience is relatable, and Kendrick transforms these wounds into something beautiful. He takes the exploded meth house and leaves it like:
This solvent can, empty,/tossed a few yards into the woods,/ almost as spotless as the day/it was tossed in a Walmart cart. ("Solvent Can, " 39-42)
He takes growing up poor and angry and the jobs in porn shops and band shows and the lost loves divided by age and time...he adds them up and in the accumulation of the tragic epiphanies gives us a book that is both mournful and beautiful. Winter Skin was well worth reading, and I'm certain that many of us who came of age on the cusp of our current social-media-saturated age will recognize in the world of these poems that predate this one and be at home in that world even with its slaughterhouses, bar fights, and meth houses.
Robert Lee Kendrick's poems transport the reader into the deep, dark souls of his narrators, but the elegance of his language gives the poems a rough, hard-earned grace. Winter Skin marks the debut of a very talented poet. --Ron Rash
Robert Lee Kendrick’s Winter Skin is an important debut, a collection brusque and headlong, unflinching and tense. More often than not, these poems explore what it means to be a human, but they achieve the sublime by acknowledging the beauty that flows under and through even the most harrowing of circumstances. Indeed, Kendrick’s poems are potent and strange because they nearly always fuse the natural world with the detritus of human condition, poems in which “headlights slash… through the purple morning dark.” This collection is beautiful for its honesty and clarity. --William Wright, Author of Tree Heresies and Night Field Anecdote; Series Editor, The Southern Poetry Anthology