Reading these essays feels like stepping into a used bookstore crowded with cobwebs, kitsch, and stuffed owls, at once spooky and comfortingly predictable. With an air that’s equal parts Alfred Hitchcock and John Waters, poet Journey (The Atheist Wore Goat Silk) floats across the macabre, the literary, and the damaged: graveyards and mental asylums; L.A.’s Museum of Death and Richmond, Va.’s tattoo artists; Rilke and Coleridge; a broken relationship with boyfriend Carrick (Journey cheated on him); her mother’s more literally broken back. In her strongest essay, “Birds 101,” Journey describes with precision the art of stuffing a starling, learned in a taxidermy class. (She is best when she moves from herself to the wider world.) Taxidermy, a touchstone throughout, becomes her Grecian urn, a way to meditate on art’s relation to life and death, and on how we inhabit our skins. Journey has the poet’s eye for detail and knack for taut sentences, strong verbs, and arresting images. The essays sometimes repeat information, as if a group of standalone pieces were gathered with no attention to the whole, but all the same, this is a fine volume and well worth reading. Agent: Chris Clemans, Clegg Agency. (Mar.)This review has been corrected; an earlier version cited the incorrect title of the author's previous book.
Praise for An Arrangement of Skin
"While reading Anna Journey's An Arrangement of Skin, I kept feeling as though I was riding on a boat, being toured through some beautiful places and some dark places, the person at the oars capably pushing ahead all the while with grace, curiosity, and persistence." Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts
"Zoos of antiquity, modern-day tattooed pirates, and ghost stories are all drawn together with Journey’s poetic talent... This is a retrospective that does not alienate with its personal tone. Rather, the reader is invited to reflect on a life’s many transitions and how they become part of the self." Booklist, starred review
"Reading the essays in Anna Journey’s elegant, haunting new collection, An Arrangement of Skin, is like cracking open a closet door and peering in to see a tight and private collection of oddities, secrets, and skeletons . . . These are intimate, delicate essays about the many skins we inhabit, illuminating even in their darkness." The Boston Globe
"Journey is a stunning writer . . . This brilliant collection shows us how the object, and the artistic interpretation laid across this object allows it, and the dangling strands of story and narrative that make it up, to stretch across time, generations, and family; to become something biggera single sliver of the greater public consciousness." The East Bay Review
"'Done with the compass, done with the chart!' cried Emily Dickinson, tossing aside familiar ways of navigating the body's wild seas. Anna Journey's adventurous book traces what it is to be flesh in a surprising suite of essays that turnslike Ovid’s poems, or Plath’saround images of dismemberment and metamorphosis. She might be our first Southern Gothic essayist, and she invigorates the form with both a poet's lyricism and the distinctive signature of her character: a vulnerable heart wedded to an acute, comic, unsparing eye." Mark Doty
"An Arrangement of Skin embodies what thrills me most in the essay forman artist trying, over and over, to find the different paths into the subterranean realms of her subconscious. An early and unlikely imagetaxidermycontains the essence of the various tensions that connect these thoughts. For Journey, taxidermy 'evokes that ineffable spark of life: call it a soul, a personality, a sentience'. An Arrangement of Skin is by turns transformative and vital, and with it Journey takes her place alongside Biss, Jamison, and D'Ambrosio." Nick Flynn
Poet Journey (English/Univ. of Southern California; Vulgar Remedies, 2013, etc.) gathers 14 quirky, earthy, lyrical essays, a number of which have been previously published. In "Modifying the Badger," about the author's transforming a badger into a raccoon via taxidermy, she discusses C.D. Wright's poem "Personals" and how, "through accumulation and refraction, Wright's slivers of personal history…expand into a larger social matrix." So do Journey's essays, many of which are autobiographical. Each piece is like a "sliver" of a photo album in which we observe the author's grandparents, parents, sister, friends, and boyfriends. Sometimes it's not pretty, like when she writes about calling a suicide hotline or when she describes herself and her best friend burning their arms with the ends of cigarettes. There are many secrets in closets, and there's also glorious prose, beautiful images and metaphors composed by a fine poet. In "A Common Skin," about how a rider and horse "share a common skin," she describes her rigid calf muscles as "dried corncobs," her heels hanging down, "hard as rubber." Many of the titles are poetic: "Epithalamium with Skunk Pigs," "A Flicker of Animal, a Flank" and "Prologue as Part of the Body." Readers will learn intriguing tidbits along the way—e.g., how to stuff a starling, that "taxidermy is about life, not death," how to be a potter, give a tattoo. We also visit interesting places, like dusty Deyrolle, part Parisian taxidermy shop, part museum of oddities, and Los Angeles' Museum of Death, home to the preserved head of the vicious serial killer Henri Désiré Landru. These elegant essays are sometimes-bewitching meditations and musings: a "unique mixture of pathos and humor, revelation and concealment, banality and wonder." Even though they get a bit precious at times and sometimes lose their way, the essays always come together "to resurrect and walk."