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Constance Alexander: Katerina Stoykova’s ‘Second Skin’ tackles the serious and sobering through poetry

“How Are You Feeling, Child?” is the question that haunts Katerina Stoykova’s newest book of poems, “Second Skin.” The three main characters in this collection – mother, father, child – are as tight as a clenched fist and as detached as severed limbs. Deeply embedded in the poems, domestic violence is not merely a metaphor, but a recurring horror in the life of the child whose mother insisted:

Don’t tell anyone

your father beats us

Because they’ll think

we did something

wrong to begin with.

The language of the poems is direct and unambiguous. In “Three Incidents” the child recalls snippets of advice about treating her injuries from domestic abuse. The first one is a quick lesson on how to camouflage bruises before sending her off to school. In number two, the father instructs her to “wash blood with cold water.” In the third piece, “The yelling was over” yet the child’s “cheeks burned with tears/ and handprints.”

Rather than resort to self-pity, there is resolve to do better. “I can’t feel anything,” the child marvels. “I must be getting stronger.”

Every recurrence of “How Are You Feeling, Child?” adds another layer of insight regarding domestic abuse. In one answer to the question, the refrain is, “As if within wax.” Another offers the analogy of feeling “Like a sock turned inside out.” The third response introduces a state of anomie as the child feels like a “Stranger to my own self.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Human skin makes up about sixteen percent of body weight, or about 1.6 trillion skin cells. Of those, between thirty- and forty thousand fall off — painlessly and almost invisibly — every hour. Snakes are a different story. Their skin does not keep pace with their growth, so they slough it off as they grow into the new one.

Both analogies seem to apply to Katerina Stoykova and “Second Skin,” which was originally published in Ms. Stoykova’s native Bulgaria. The poems received wide acclaim and attention, including a 2018 Creative Europe grant by the European Commission so the book could be translated and published in English.

Although the well-traveled writer has resided in many places, she is a Kentuckian now, living in Lexington. She has reinvented herself many times, as an engineer, immigrant, wife, mother, poet, and entrepreneur. Founder and editor of Accents Publishing, she specializes in work from well-established Kentucky writers, mostly poets like Richard Taylor, former Kentucky Poet Laureate, who called it, “one of the most exciting publishing houses in Kentucky in 30 years.”

Yes, the subject matter in “Second Skin” is serious and sobering, but instead of burying the feelings alive, Katerina Stoykova brings them out into the open. It is up to the reader to accept Stoykova’s challenge and move on from there. In the midst of quarantines and “sheltering in place” due to COVID-19, the rate of reported domestic violence jumped twenty percent in April alone.

Like so many of the issues associated with violence that currently confront us, reality can be ignored for just so long. “Second Skin” compels readers to turn the dark pages. Pay attention.

For more information about Katerina Stoykova, go to www.katerinaklemer.com.

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