Posts Tagged ‘book review’

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A MINOR SAINT

Monday, January 11th, 2010


The following review of Sarah Sloat’s In the Voice of a Minor Saint, (© 2009, Tilt Press) is part of Read Write Poem’s poetry review series.


What sounds come from a minor saint’s mouth? What cadence, what mood, what music? Thinking of minor saints takes me back to my childhood. A soon-to-be-woebegone Catholic boy, I would drift in and out of reveries during mass, look up occasionally toward the front where the priest stood among a selection of heaven’s all stars in statue form: Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, etc. Meanwhile, a sculpture of the boyish saint after whom the parish was named stood off to the side: St. Aloysius, or, as I called him, St. Al. Dressed in a frock, holding a book, he was an imp in the land of giants, a minor saint with a voice that couldn’t have been much more than a pip.

St. Al’s path toward sainthood reads as an interesting journey. Wikipedia does a fine job with the crib notes, and a few things stand out: he took a vow of chastity at age nine; he suffered from kidney trouble his entire life — Louise Hay might connect this to shame, criticism, and child-like reactions; his piety was such that he was too polite to look his queen in the face; he followed the Jesuit order much to the chagrin of his father, who had wanted him to be a soldier and, upon accepting this wouldn’t happen, at least wanted him to do something other than join the priesthood, which meant he would yield his rights to what would have been a substantial inheritance; and he died at the tender age of 23 at midnight on the summer solstice, in accordance with a vision he’d had a few days earlier. (Today he’s the patron saint of young students, Christian youth and AIDS patients.)

From this history we get the picture of a young man who walked away from a family legacy, who failed to live up to his father’s wishes, who transferred his own quiet suffering — on top of kidney disease, he was plagued with chronic headaches, skin diseases and insomnia — into a life of asceticism and spiritual awareness through isolation. His voice reaches through the darkness not in sobs but in the whisper of everyday prayers that balance on the edge of his lips; not self-righteous, but certainly self-aware; removed from the malaise, his spirit dips inward then beams out.

Sloat’s work possesses a similar sense of self-awareness and in-but-out beaming. We first encounter this passive separation in “Opportunity,” the short musing that leads the collection:

“There was a sound like a moccasin dropping
       in the upstairs apartment.”

We all know that sound, and if don’t, we at least know the sound of movement above us. Two more sounds follow: a boy shouts in Cantonese “near the end of the street,” and a radio wavers “between stations.” Sloat’s narrator is away from these sounds, within earshot but unaffected by thoughts of “I wonder what it all means?” The reader, too, comes in from these sounds, floats down and lands in the room with the narrator who’s busy becoming “marvelous.”

We never know to what opportunity the poem alludes. We don’t need to know. Sloat could have written an entirely different poem filled with opportunities lost and found. Instead we drop into this world of sounds we do not own; rather than seek sense or reason behind the sounds, we remain happily aloof, preparing for whatever opportunity waits.

One thought is that the opportunity is actually an invitation to turn the page and encounter “Pursuit,” where a similar sounding narrator goes through her morning rituals of coffee, cigarette, toast, horoscope and comic strip. Here Sloat has filled in many of the lines she left blank in “Opportunity.” The narrator brings us further in, moving from reflection into the self:

“Subversive joy of a broken heart, salt wallow
here’s to the suffering my father predicted
ah if he only knew
how beautiful

pain and ecstasy
as Christoph says, what a pair — ”

Despite the gravity of these lines, there’s a strange, almost surreal playfulness in the music that reminds me of the Beatles “A Day in the Life.”

( “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…” )

A poet of Sloat’s skill could easily build a collection on “day in the life” poetry. For the purpose of this volume, she has other songs to sing.

We finally meet her minor saint muse in the third poem, which bears the same title as the collection. Saint Appolonia, perhaps more humble than even our friend Saint Al, was a second-century virgin martyr who today is considered the “protectress against toothaches.” Here, Sloat’s narrator considers her own humble origins:

“I came at a wee hour
into my miniature existence.”

The voice, we discover, belongs to someone with a small heart, “like a love of buttons or black pepper.” And isn’t it so with all minor saints? These quiet ones of the dream come down to earth’s realm whenever there’s a lost cause (St. Jude), a bell in need of making (St. Agatha), a case of gout (St. Anthony) or a secretary having a bad day (St. Catherine of Siena). Meanwhile, Sloat’s language conjures a tender visage, creating the desire to cradle these poems, to rub your fingers through their smooth hair, to whisper how wonderful they are, to remind them the world is more beautiful with them in it.

Such passages truly make your heart ooze, and show up again and again throughout the collection. In “Ghazal with Heavenly Bodies,” we meet a moon full of “nicks and bite marks;” in “Humidity,” we’re reminded that “paradise may be built in a day but the rest takes time.” But Sloat’s work is not simply a batch of flowers and sweetness. In “Vestment,” a short, sharp narrative that closes the collection, we arrive “On the morning of my ruin,” and don “a vest of bees as the sun crimps the sky.”

Perhaps Sloat considers herself a minor saint in the vast cannon of modern poetry. Only she could say. Whatever the case, after reading and re-reading this collection, I feel she’s a tenacious spirit with a curious nature and thirst for language. Hopefully we’ll be enjoying the illumined sound of her soft voice for many years.



According to the bio on her blog, Sarah Sloat is a worker ant who currently lives in Frankfurt, Germany. Visit her site to learn more about her and her work.

GOD BLESS YOU, MR. SKYLIGHT

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

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.”


UNIVERSAL TIMING

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.


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