The following review of Ed Skoog’s first full-length collection, MISTER SKYLIGHT (© 2009, Copper Canyon Press ), is part of Read Write Poem’s ongoing virtual book tour series. Keep an eye on all upcoming reviews here.
I’d been in a funk when MISTER SKYLIGHT showed up. A writing funk, sure, but also a reading funk. They feel the same when you boil them down. Nothing inspires, nothing motivates, nothing comes. Every book in the house felt like television fuzz. Not you, MISTER SKYLIGHT. I could tell you were different as soon as I pried you from your Copper Canyon envelope, you with your sepia cover image that spoke of walls and distance, your rusted font and your shot of Ed Skoog on the back cover standing in front of what appeared to be a trailer.
You had poems entitled “During the War”, “Party at the Dump”, and “Memory Loss” right there in the first 14 pages. You had weird sounding stuff later on – “Early Kansas Impressionists,” “Punks Not Dead”, “Pier Life.” MISTER SKYLIGHT, I hadn’t even read a poem yet and I knew you were after my soul.
Then I jumped in.
The truth of this collection is the same truth you’ll find in the nearest skylight. Go stand under the glow. Tell me of the sun, the weather, the clouds. Now tell me of the mites trapped in the screen, the bird shit, the exoskeletons of life. Skoog’s first full-length collection captures and presents the truth of the truth: our under-analyzed, overlooked, often fragile existences on earth.
PLACES, REAL OR OTHERWISE
The collection succeeds, in large part, because of its all-too-real intensity, even as the poet makes no bones about the fact that many of the bones within, while borne of truth, take shape in the imagination. As Skoog mentioned during a recent conversation, “Giving yourself over to the imagination — and I’m not the first person to say this — allows you to express deeper truths than what are factual.
“You begin to approach poems with more liberty with regards to what the ‘I’ is, and what the subject is or isn’t.” Going forward, it allows a writer — Skoog or otherwise — to go deeper, even if a poem, on its surface, may not be about anything.
Many of the poems owe their strength to Skoog’s clever return and reliance on place, right down to times, dates, neighborhoods, streets and rooms. No matter how imaginative and inventive the language becomes, the reader is never lost. Still, Skoog’s places — his Topeka, for instance — are the imagined places of dreams. And not the idle daydreams that help pacify our minds during business meetings or dinner with in-laws. The dreams of MISTER SKYLIGHT are weird midnight visions that flicker along our internal movie screens, the ones that replay your childhood bedroom at an 80% reduction. The furniture is familiar but something is off. Reality becomes temporal, the present is fleeting, and our memories are forever liquid and ever-changing.
“Even when the names of places are accurate, the poetry takes place in the imagination,” Skoog says. “If I say, ‘Topeka’, it’s different than ‘Topeka’ in an essay, and different than taking a picture and saying, ‘This is Topeka.’
“There are a lot of places in the book,” Skoog continues. “Some are places where I’ve lived or visited. Some, like the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, are places I’ve never seen. They’re all imaginary places as far as the poems go. Each place means something different to me, and each has associations that, when you put them into poems, become art associations. They become the aestheticized Topeka, the aestheticized New Orleans.”
Skoog wrote these poems over the course of a decade and a half, the earliest dating back to around the time he was finishing his M.F.A. at the University of Montana. The bulk of these poems, however, come from an intensely creative period between 2001 and 2006. During this time, Skoog was immersed in the richly creative community of New Orleans, a city the poet credits with having, in his mind, the greatest literary heritage in the country, and our most thriving contemporary literary scene.
“New Orleans was a place to mature, and to do so in an interesting way,” Skoog says. After growing up in Topeka, and living in places like Montana, Southern California and Seattle, Skoog relished the city’s life, art, and color.
“It was different than being off in the suburbs teaching as an adjunct in the middle of nowhere. Aside from growing up and becoming more understanding of the world, New Orleans affected my relationship with poetry in a number of ways.” Skoog found himself as part of a community of “magnificent writers”, each with their very high standards with respect to meaning, music and form.
“They had a lot of different interests, not all of them being of American traditions.”
During this period, Skoog was on the faculty of an arts high school was founded in the ’70s by Ellis Marsalis and other New Orleans musicians. His colleagues helped expand Skoog’s view of poetry and the meaning and role of verse.
“They demanded that you take poetry seriously, which was different from other poetry friends I’d had. For five years I taught with this great group of three other writers. All we did was read, write and talk about poetry, both among ourselves and with some very talented New Orleans kids.”
BOTH SIDES OF THE MASK
Beyond the conversations, study and crafting Skoog experienced in New Orleans, the city itself affected his work in a profound, deliberate sense. As Skoog mentions,
“The nature of the city as being very public and carnivalesque was unbelievably exciting to me,” he says. “But also, the other side of New Orleans, more of the Latin side, is very private and reserved. I found it to be dignified and reflective in ways I’d never encountered. Those two sides of the mask became very important to me, my view of life, and my understanding of how poetry should be written.”
It is from this understanding that the poems in MISTER SKYLIGHT truly begin to open up. For every midnight tramp — the poem “West Coast,” featured in Narrative Magazine, is a fantastic example — Skoog consistently brings us back to a place of reflection. The narrator’s long, drunken night with an old friend concludes with a walk through the present moment as well as past haunts. The poem distills down to the following:
“Our high-minded speculation fades
as we try to find the car, remembering
only that it faced the ship locks,
and when we find it we eat the fries
cold, and let the paper bag be taken
by the wind along the water, and settle
onto its currents, among the rustling gulls.”
While Skoog understands and adheres to the belief that the aim of poetry is serious, he is mindful not to take himself or his role as a poet too seriously. In Recent Changes at Canter’s Deli, a poem in which the narrator, like an earlier version of Skoog, finds himself teaching poetry to affluent teens in Southern California, we read,
“Poetry’s just the form
of unimportance I teach teenagers above L.A.
under slanted windows that kill, by surprise,
the birds we then write about, gathering bonfire
around the small corpses, because it’s cold here.”
This idea of unimportance, similar to giving yourself up to the imagination, proves liberating.
“It’s making a claim for unimportance,” Skoog says. “How wonderful to be unimportant. What liberty and freedom there is to being unimportant in a world where so many things are deemed important.”
Throughout MISTER SKYLIGHT, Skoog does an excellent job guiding readers through the subterranean landscapes he creates. Even when our footing seems unsure, his mastery of narrative and linguistic manipulation — seemingly stretching meter, meaning and rhyme at will — ushers us along. While he is more trickster than sherpa — he may very well duck away and hide on you for a few seconds, and don’t expect him to carry your bags — he keeps us in a close proximity, reminds us that we are all underwater together.
Visit the Guest Writer page to read five poems from MISTER SKYLIGHT. Read part 1 of our interview here.