Issue 2 - Winter 2010
Cities of Flesh and the Dead
Cures and Poisons
How to Live on Bread and Music
Pictures in the Firestorm
Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants
Rock Vein Sky
Slaves to Do These Things
The Air around the Butterfly
The Guilt Gene
the nested object
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,
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:
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:
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:
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”:
“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.
Reviewed by Jill Crammond Wickham.