A review of What the River Told Me by Jane Skelton

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

What the River Told Me
by Jane Skelton
Flying Island Pocket Poets
2021, Paperback, 79 pages, ISBN: 9780645219616

What the River Told Me by Jane Skelton is a small pocket-sized poetry book with beautiful illustrations of fishes and shells by Virginia Shepherd, who also illustrated the cover. The title of the book is very appropriate because in various poems rivers are mentioned, but the main reason I think it is appropriate is because it is about the ‘river of life’ with its ebbs and flows. 

Jane Skelton not only writes poetry, she also writes short stories and novels.  Skelton’s stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. Many poems in this small gem of a book are about a woman’s life and experiences, where the poet’s imagination is aroused by place and time, Skelton is a wonderful observer of nature and people. 

Family memories, and what is said and not said, flow through the pages in poems with a tight narrative and strong sense of truth.  Reading the poems, I felt like I was entering into a temple where images, sounds and thoughts intermingled in an exuberant and exotic dance of words.  Skelton narrates, describes and expresses feelings, sensations and thoughts accompanied by rich imagery.

The title poem opens the book, providing a strong narrative thread that runs like the image of a river, through the book:

a yellow muscular tide
viscous, lustrous
a serpentine thread
covering and uncovering
gathering up, letting go
my mother lived on an island
among the reeds and rushes
my father looked out
from an upstairs window
and watched the water rise
the river flowed through all their lives
flowing softly
with all the things not told or said
glassy, excited
mirroring the past
in sepia

Skelton’s poems present a smooth and orderly surface, her voice is measured and deliberate and expresses an attitude towards life and a way of being in the world.  Within all the seriousness and realism of her poetry a sense of humour is evident, as in the following poem titled “Moniave Scotland”:

in a pub in Moniave
I think I’ve found my people
enveloped in a clutch of folk musicians
singing at the top of my voice
I see a thin child enter
with a wolfhound on a lead
but when she turns and looks up
I see she is little person
of wrinkled face and long straw hair
I think I’ve found my people
although I don’t understand a word

Reading Skelton’s poetry we travel with her across the seas, around Australia, on foot, on boats, on trains. This is work that brings the world to the page, but it is also deeply philosophical.  For example, in a poem titled “the slave boy Dick and Benjamin Boyd”, Skelton raises a question about how we write across racial boundaries: “I’m a white woman in the twenty-first century – can I write about this?  Not sure if I can tell this. Have I the right?”.  What the River Told Me is rich with complex images, interesting characters and fascinating tales.

About the Reviewer: Beatriz Copello is a Dr Creative Arts and also a psychologist. She is a a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, and writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish) and Witches, Women and Words. Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.