the confusion that reigns on deck
The beauty of agreeing to review work by an author that’s new to you is the surprise, the opportunity to read a collection you may not have picked on your own.
As a poetry consumer, I confess I gravitate toward a particular kind of verse. Often, I seek out poems that are accessible to me because of what I already know and what I already know I like. It’s a dangerous habit if you’re interested in stretching yourself creatively. If you want to challenge yourself as a writer (and I do), you have to challenge yourself as a reader.
Be prepared. All the usual egos will show up with questions: What does this have to do with me? When is the poem going to connect with me? Where is my entry point into this work? And when a book doesn’t offer up answers upon command, the discomfort can be powerful enough to convince the hands to put it down. Laziness is a skilled enough vice it even assuages the conscience: You can come back to it later, it says.
This describes my early relationship with Ed Skoog’s debut collection Mister Skylight. Pick it up. Fail to find my usual bearings. Put it down. Pick it up. Recognize nothing. Put it down. Repeat.
I am so determined to uncover a path into the work, however, that I question — and then abandon — the guideposts on which I’d been relying. And so eventually I enter Mister Skylight as I should have from the first: open to seeing what it wants to show me.*
MY EXPERIENCE OF MISTER SKYLIGHT
What “Mister Skylight” wants to show me is that poetry can be elusive and (dare I say?) confusing as a means of illumination.
Ed Skoog purposefully blindfolds us, spins us around and dares us to find a target. He wants us to be unbalanced in our interaction with the work; he wants our experience to be unsettling, for the writing to “arrive like a hostage, an ear, a finger in the mail” (from “Party at the Dump”). In other words, Dear Reader, you never know what’s coming. Don’t expect to look around and know where you are.
Once we are into the work, we identify the hints he has dropped. In “Canzoniere for Late July,” “all the songs danced to are turned/ unrecognizable,” and it is
as if a thread
of pleasure’s been dropped, the looping thread
I’d need to navigate the maze turned
to the map all travelers have to oblivion,
as if guidebooks could rescue …
Skoog gives us more proof that navigating will be difficult in “Mister Skylight” when our narrator says, “I rudder my continent, which I’m still learning” and declares outright that disarray is his “precise pouch.” Even the punctuation of the collection, the final lines of the last poem “Postscript: Autobiographical,” reinforces how the narrator has been leading us: “And when I drowned,” he says, “I sank slowly and meant every fathom.”
Manufacturing obscurity (what’s difficult to understand) is the perfect device for a collection of poems that uses a code word for disaster as its title. (“Mister Skylight” is a signal the captain uses to alert his crew about an emergency without alarming the passengers.) In times of disaster and tragedy, chaos and confusion dominate. There is no clarity. There are flashes of recognition but nothing to hold them together.
When I say the experience of reading “Mister Skylight” mimics some of the sensations of experiencing disaster, I mean the collection is a success. Amidst devastation (which Skoog is careful not to limit to “Titanic” or “Katrina”), we can’t know what everything means.
The experience of danger is chaos, is fragments, is shards of color in the kaleidoscope, churning, light in one end, pigments confusing the eye at the other end. We recover random and unexpected bits of our lives (a door, a scarf, a melody) after a shipwreck, after destruction of a city, and Skoog tells stories with these pieces, with what remains. They may not be the narratives we predicted our lives would follow; they are, however, assembled skillfully around a new reality. We make an odd new life with what we find.
HOW WE KNOW WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
Skoog’s narrator shows us the oddities and abstractions inherent in the world of the poems. In “Recent Changes at Canter’s Deli” the narrator is direct: “Nothing is where it was.” The entire poem details how everything is a bit “off” now. The other poems show it, as well. In “Early Kansas Impressionists” he places “new condos at belief’s edge” and makes snow angels with a deceased mother: “mine a mimicry of myself/ hers a rectangle silence.”
Many times, Skoog plays with language in order depict situations as upside-down or backwards, when actually they are as they have always been. In “Punks Not Dead,” cars “shrink toward destination,” for example, and in “Mister Skylight” —
I switch the darkness off,
disturbing a triangle moth who,
thinking perhaps that night
has moved into my black T-shirt
flutters toward me and clings.
More subtly, Skoog takes away our bearings by refusing to allow us our regular assumptions. For instance, there is a dramatic difference between how we typically think of “moon” and “sun” in poetry — light, beauty, comfort, consistency, etc. — and how they actually appear in the collection.
“Party at the Dump” says, “The moon rises over the abandoned town/ like cutlery on the high shelf,” and “Sunset ripens and ruptures.” It also references “the moon’s IV drip.” Cutlery! Ruptures! IV drip! These are not your mama’s metaphors for sun and moon! All is not well.
There is a “skeleton cloud in moonlight” in “Help in Seven Languages Written on the Skeleton Coast.” “Canzoniere” argues that “it never ends, night, the way the sun has to break it;” dawn delivers “harsh scenery” and “offers up loneliness.” In “Mister Skylight” the moon “offers its offensive and ridiculous bulge,” and “sunlight has so little tenure.” In “Memory Loss,” the “sun limps” and later, a whale beaches itself in “estuary moonlight:”
wanders and now the broken study
of its organs accuses no one
from underneath some towels.
This is what we have to work with.
Skoog’s infusion of sun and moon imagery that is askance from the norm is a great example of how the collection works right down to its bones, how every detail works to support the story and the tone with which it is told.
HOW WE KNOW IT’S PART OF THE PLAN
We believe the author and his narrator are ducking and hiding from us intentionally because we otherwise see that they have chosen each word with intention, and we appreciate the careful noticing. In “Inland Empire,” the narrator tells us,
It’s 11:11, time
to make my daily wish,
catch the stilt legs of those
two birds who land twice
a day inside the clock.
and in “Like Night Catching Jackrabbits in Its Barbed Wire,” he reports, “My wife pours orange juice into a green glass/ beside black crumbs of birthday cake.”
Even the structure of the collection (and the form various pieces take) confirms how methodical the poet is in delivering his tale. For example, two of the more interesting aspects of the collection are the long poems “Canzoniere of Late July” and the title piece “Mister Skylight;” the poems are 10 pages and 19 pages, respectively. The two pieces even share at least one line: “This is it, spaceman: life on Earth.”
“Canzoniere” is comprised of 12-line stanzas (except the final stanza). Its end-words repeat in an intricate pattern set by the first stanza. There are five end-words in each stanza, and there are five sets of end words. Each set of end-words repeats five times, creating 25 interlocking stanzas. The final stanza, number 26, is 24 lines long, using all but one of the 25 end-words according to a specific pattern. The end-word not repeated in the final stanza is “unexpected.”
“Mister Skylight” is a 19-page poem that wouldn’t tell me how it decided to use page breaks as a device in the same way the poet uses line breaks and stanza breaks. Skoog doesn’t necessarily fill a page with lines before breaking onto the next one, although each begins with a shift in the subject matter. Each page could be its own poem or section but is, instead, a continuation of the longer poem, separated by no heading or title, marked only by the start of a fresh page.
Both “Canzoniere” and “Mister Skylight” illustrate how meticulous Skoog has been in writing and compiling the work. His architecture is evident in these pieces, but the complexity exists just as much in the others.
HOW THE EXPERIENCE TRAINS US TO PLAY ALONG
The initial difficulty I had accessing the writing (the combination of my own resistance and the obstacles set up by the author) lead me to feel truly joyful when I connected with a particular line or group of lines. Just as survivors may sort through rubble and become exuberant when they salvage something, I became delighted, as a reader, when I found bright spots within the text.
Even in devastation there is beauty; says the narrator in “Canzoniere,” “You billowed in clouds instead of a dress,/ but no hurricane warning is fierce as your dress.” Even in despair, there is opportunity for frivolity; the narrator in “Party at the Dump” plays “masking-tape tic-tac-toe” on a window. In hardship, there is tenderness scattered about, the narrator “wanting to tell the woman who left hours ago/ that her scarf still lies across the bench” in “Punks Not Dead.”
And there is hope. In the title piece, the narrator’s father tells a story about how he and his pregnant wife (the narrator’s mother) survive a car crash:
He is still surprised, each moment, how
they rose and dusted themselves off,
and, feeling the baby kick, and, the tires
having landed right, just drove home.
The title of this blog post — “the confusion that reigns on deck” — is a line from the poem “Canzoniera of Late July.” Ed Skoog’s “Mister Skylight” is available from Copper Canyon Press.
The review is part of the Read Write Poem’s Virtual Book Tour. Be sure to visit Mister Skylight’s prior stops on the tour — DaveJarecki.com, Exhaust Fumes & French Fries (Nathan Moore) and jillypoet (Jill Crammond Wickham) — and make a note of its next appearances: Book of Kells (Kelli Russell Agodon) and The Rain in My Purse (Sarah J. Sloat).
*It is, of course, the kind of presence that can benefit every encounter with a poem; sadly, we get distracted from it sometimes.