A review of Sea Skins by Sophia Wilson

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Sea Skins
by Sophia Wilson
Flying Island Books/Cerberus Press
Paperback, ISBN: 978064550320, Jan 2023, 108 pages, $10aud

When I first read Sophia Wilson’s manuscript as one of the judges of the inaugural Flying Islands first poetry competition I knew immediately that it would be one of the winners.  It struck me immediately as polished, ambitious, unique and uniquely beautiful piece of work. The poetry manages at once to be visual, multi-lingual and sonic, so that the poems create meaning in a variety of ways. The work packs a powerful semantic punch: these are poems that explore big themes like climate change, ageing, parenting, illness, isolation and transcendence in subtle and moving ways. I think of “Amygdaloid Knots” which so beautifully conflates the process of spinning wool into yarn and the forced isolation through winter and possibly Covid:

We bare our skins
and card our fleeces
Neuroses litter the carpet
We are bundles of raw fibre

Other poems with a semantic impact include “Waning” – a delicate and perfectly controlled poem about anorexia wedged between a question and an answer:

At the year eleven formal a boy asks
What happened to you?
I am moving my skeleton like Cyndi Lauper
Girls just wanna have fun
[seven: waxing — sun-browned, barefoot
nine: I swim in the dam, I look for yabbies
ten: I knit, I roller skate, I collect stamps
twelve: I breed ducks, I sit in branches, I read
thirteen: I put my Walkman on, I run
fourteen: I weigh thirty-eight kilograms
fifteen: I circle my body like a scavenger]
sixteen: I shrug

“Skin” explores a mother’s guilt; a daughter’s scar:

I can’t remember it, she says
but deep in the bone
her foot aches
and inside my broken kitchen
a shrill kettle      whistles

Wilson’s control is assured, with the poems trailing off and connecting across the pages – from life surges to dispersing. Many of the poems are visual, such as the tear drop in “ellipse” which connects to the vase in “The Body Library”, the jagged columns in “Cutting Teeth”, the block-out mirroring between “En Cas D’Urgence” and “In the Event of Emergency”.

Wilson works every word with the precision of a linguist, drawing out the sounds of words, “The tick-tock knock of one hundred clocks” or “three shells cantering takka tak takka tak”. Alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, parataxis – the poems employ a range of techniques that make them aurally beautiful:

Histories are ever-weeping branches —
burial grounds on the outskirts (“Local Reservations”) 


Huhu beetle now, te muimui:     sometimes black,
yellow, brown, striped —        eggs again white.
It’s nothing to   huhu     this temporary skin —
this    white,    black,    yellow,    brown,     striped. (“Huhu”)

There are poems in Māori, with French, Italian, Russian, German, Chinese, languages jostling against one another in a way that both informs and changes the words, the sense, the way in which they signify:

es gibt kein Wasser / bodies are dropping from the plane
/ la fen.tre ne s’ouvre pas

The poems are both transcendent and metapoetic, doubling back on themselves to demonstrate the magic of their imagining:

but on the keyboard-rosary, click, click, click
a new poem surfaces, sleek-skinned, seaworthy
set to survive invasive latitudes and longitudes
a savvy sigh, a seabird’s song
a swift filling of the sails.

Sea Skins is such a clever book, with so much depth, so much to explore – humorous, erudite and sophisticated, yet deeply grounded in the familiar – medical procedures, the making of an espresso, parenthood, the death of a parent, the earth we live on or are embodied in. Sea Skins is exquisitely wrought and delicately presented: a wonderful debut.

The book can be purchased for as little as $5 here: https://flyingislandspocketpoets.com.au/product/sea-skins-by-sophia-wilson/