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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Award-Winning Poet takes on Kafka

Kafka's Shadlow
Author: Judith Skillman
Published by Deerbrook Editions, Cumberland, Maine
77 pages, paperback, (c) 2017
ISBN: 978-0-9975051-4-6

Reviewed by Carol Smallwood originally for Compulsive Reader

A contemporary American woman poet takes on an awesome task when writing about a male fiction writer in another era (1883-1924) composing in German in what is now the Czech Republic. Judith Skillman, the recipient of an Academy of American Poets and included in Best Indie Verse of New England is to be commended for this unique collection. 

Kafka had a few works published in his life, yet his influence spreads beyond literature to philosophy--his charters meeting bizarre circumstances, alienation, and absurdity. The title of the poetry collections comes from one of Kafka's letters and is also the title of one of the the poems.

Poems such as “Dearest” and “Felice Ponders” employ the point of view of the woman who wants to be his wife, though Kafka never marries. Skillman uses details like bulgur wheat, her stiff collar, and a train ride from Prague to Berlin to portray the couple’s relationship and culture. “Tuberculosis,” which ends his life at 40, is written from Kafka’s point of view, with borscht soup waiting to cool, his father sleeping in a chair, and the image “fat pigeons sun themselves in winter light.”

There are several poems examining the relationship of Kafka and his father through Biblical allusions, most notably the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac. Kafka’s character and his world reveal themselves not unlike layers of an onion. We feel we know them better with each poem. Three pages of notes at the end of the collection include details such as the word “pater” means father, as well as background quotes from Kafka’s many letters.

It takes a lot of craftsmanship to have readers get inside the personalities and the culture of the characters in poems based on scholarship and detailed research—a huge task; all of the poems stick to the topic of Kafka and explore aspects of his family and his times. The last of the 47 free verse poems, “Kafka’s Nocturne,” uses revealing lines in its penultimate stanza: “Rumination and obsession—/guests who sit on the bed he won’t occupy/ with a lover….”


Carol Smallwood is a multi-Pushcart nominee. Her  In Hubble’s Shadow (Shanti Arts, 2017) is her 4th poetry collection. Her Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland) is on Poets & Writers Magazine's list of Best Books for Writers.


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