Copper Canyon Press
Paperback, 120 pages
Link to Purchase
Reviewed by Jill Crammond Wickham
Life must be worth something/ for the loss of it to hurt so much.
This is the simple truth that the poems in Ed Skoog’s new collection, Mister Skylight, are built upon. Again and again, through flood, hurricane and wildfire, through the daily bewilderment of life’s uncertainties, there is the certainty of wreckage, that “Sunset ripens and ruptures,” that “If you were delicious, [cormorants] would dive after you/ with powerful small webbed feet or leave only a feather.”
The phrase “Mister Skylight” is an emergency signal to alert a ship’s crew, but not its passengers, of an emergency. To read this debut collection is to be at once the ship’s crew—alert to impending tragedy, and its passengers—utterly unaware. As Skoog said in a recent interview with Dave Jarecki,
“The ship is at its end. But the warning comes without wanting to alarm the passengers. It’s a warning for the crew to start readying the lifeboats, or to start preparing for abandoning the ship so it could get done in an orderly process…That was probably the scariest thing I’d ever read for some reason, not just the phrase but the thought of being a survivor, or temporary survivor, and to hear that sort of warning…”
As the first line of this title poem intones, “When you enter the city of riots, confess/ what turns your life has taken.” Throughout the book, Skoog is confessing, though his work is far from what some critics call confessional. Instead, “It is like the enormity Gregor Samsa/ is hoping to sleep through, but, well, can’t.” It is impossible to ignore the man-size cockroach in the room, or, in Skoog’s world, the ocean opening “Grand Isle like a casket,” or “…next week’s water/ writing its black line across plaster.”
In this way, each poem takes on a narrative cast, alluding to the universal in all of our myriad sufferings. With little effort, readers will doubtless see themselves in such carefully wrought lines as, “Who’s not tired of choosing between/ invisibility and flight?” Will say yes when invited to consider, “Is it sufficient to believe in dirt?” for as the narrator reminds us:
The mind will join eventually with sod,
merging memory of a lovely kiss with dirt
and its caress; the hands I wash dirt
from will become cleansed of hands.
Trust in Mr. Skylight, personified alarm, and view through Skoog’s clear eyes the humanity surrounding each of us, if only we were alert enough to see it, if only we had our own “Mr. Skylight” counsel:
The problems of language are mostly solvedin the fish’s gutting on the public sink, and thrown to sea
lions by the old woman with fierce embarrassment for a hat.A girl staring at a croaker cut in half
runs to daddy. She reminds me that terrorhas a place here, in the beginning, among strange messages.
Sometimes, like the very tragedies he is recording, Skoog’s images are difficult to interpret. In “Party at the Dump,” it is clear a storm has come through. “What can’t be seen under the thrown/ was home.” In the closing lines, however, a beautiful debris of language works in disarray:
When the wind turns along the fence, when the gray
horse rounds the turn, blue arguments gnarl
podiums of sky. Wind kneels in August februation
The boy with the web painted on his face
pursues his thoughts through the vineyard.
Much like survivors returning to the ruin that is their home, we are forced to look again, read again, and strive to make meaning of what doesn’t lend itself to simplicity. Such is the nature of tragedy. Such is the nature of trying to understand someone else’s emotions. Always, always, however, the raw feeling is present. The poet, himself, explains this occasional ambiguity best in the poem “Memory Loss”:
So when I write “starved tigers devour us
with an uncomfortable vitality”
I am thinking about all the people I’ve lost,
those torn, shredded, fouled, and swallowed
by the eagerness of car crash, cancer, stroke, old age, youth,
money, anger, love,
“I’ve had enough. I/ know she means she also doesn’t know/ what secret sent every quarter/ down Markey’s jukebox.” So begins the poem “Ruler of My Heart”, and if you didn’t know better, didn’t know the history of post-Katrina New Orleans and its people’s tenacious rebound from tragedy, you might conclude the poem was simply giving voice to a maudlin narrator, some guy sitting at the bar drowning his sorrows.
But Irma Thomas—Soul Queen of New Orleans—, and the singer in question, is a survivor. Though Katrina left both her home and night club underwater, Thomas didn’t falter, moving 60 miles away for a very short time before returning to The Big Easy and achieving great success. Likewise, Skoog’s poems resist the temptation to flounder in melancholy, resist utter despair in favor of a savage and conscious honesty.
Just as the birth of the blues gave suffering not only a voice but a swift kick, so the poetry in this powerful collection is born of what Skoog calls “the heartbreaking impulse…the lyric impulse to respond internally and to want to communicate that with somebody.” Tune your ear to Mister Skylight’s mournful wail. As you surrender to your own impulse, one truth will resound—though this life may be melancholy, it is never, never without beauty. It just takes a poet’s eye (and voice) to reveal it. “You hear it. You do not hear it.” Your choice.