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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Delving Beneath Ordinary Skin with Amy Hale Auker


Ordinary Skin, Essays from Willow Springs
Once upon a recent time, there was a little black hen whose flock was attacked by a coyote. In the story, the little black hen survives, spending several nights alone in the woods but when she returns to her flock in the hen house, she returns as an outcast.

“I am her only friend,” writes Amy Hale Auker in her new book Ordinary Skin, Essays from Willow Springs (Texas Tech University Press). “I think she got lonely out there among the grass and leaves. Sleeping alone.”

Life in the transient rural West can be lonely for outcasts, whether they’re chickens or women or men or children. “Any roots I’ve ever had,” writes Auker, “were fragile and tentative, ripped from the soil...”

Wallace Stegner was correct, the West is as much about motion as it is about place yet Auker’s connections to place, temporary as they have been all her life, are never thinly forged connections. 

Ordinary Skin is an immersion into living skin-to-skin with the world. Not the world at large or the world in motion, but the still and intimate world captured with clarity in brief and intentional moments – the world that exists beside you in a candlelit bedroom, the world that lives outside your kitchen door, the world living in your dreams and in your fears and failings.

Amy Hale Auker, Texas Tech
Auker is a master of metaphor and metaphors show up everywhere in her stories. The stories might come to us fully fledged, or only as fragments that she graciously invites us to piece together. Whether a story about her only possessions carried protectively in a pack on her back while swimming through deep river water, or a story about the broken eggshells she finds swept from swallow nests by overzealous birds, she dips us quickly into each story. 

A skinny-dipping kind of reading experience, we don’t hesitate to toss our clothing on the shore and plunge in, even when she takes us into the naked and metaphorical heart of an intimate moment between a man and a woman.

I want to pick up the eggshells, but I am oh, so careful, for the lightest touch can crush. 
They aren’t chickens.
“But they are already broken,” you say.
“I know, but I can’t bear to be the one who does any more damage.”
Late at night, in the dark, we are speaking of the past and he says, “Don’t touch that.”
I nod with respect, for I know how fragile already broken can be.

The subtext is visceral and the intellect is helpless to interpret its meaning on its own. We turn instinctively to the body for a deeper understanding. Auker seems to agree with D.H. Lawrence: “What our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.”

The stories in Ordinary Skin are unbridled stories, as close to poetry as un-bitted prose can be.

Once upon a recent time a woman and her husband were riding along the trail to a place called Willow Springs. The woman looked up at a hillside and saw what she first thought was a small black cow. But it was a young black bear, chasing a jackrabbit through the grass. He caught the jackrabbit (not an easy feat), and walking stiff-legged to keep from dragging the rabbit on the ground, carried it over to where a few cows were grazing before plopping down with them to eat.

“When we got to the spring,” Auker writes, “we could see by the manure, scat and tracks around the water that the little bear had been living with those cows for quite some time.”

Amy Hale Auker, Photo by Steve Atkinson
Country women like Amy instinctively seek solace in the company of animals, and in their stories. We learn how to rear our children by watching how animals rear theirs. We recognize ourselves as the herd animals we are, and as female creatures who are both predator and prey. We form plant communities by giving names to the flowering cactuses and wild sego lilies that grow along the trails we walk. We plant roots in shallow soil, over and over again, ever faithful to the notion of place, our place.

Some of us, like Amy Hale Auker, write stories of lonely black hens and orphaned bears and stoic men, learning how to embrace whatever comes within the arc of our open arms. This is the hope we give to the world with every stroke of our pens – a tender strength that cannot be denied. 

NOTE: To read some of Amy's poetry, click here. To purchase Ordinary Skin or other titles by Amy, click here.