Tag Archives: read. write. poem.

Ed Skoog’s “Mister Skylight” – Man the Lifeboats

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mister-skylight

Welcome to the latest stop on Read. Write. Poem.‘s Virtual Book Tour! To read more reviews of this ambitious debut collection, please visit the Book Tour Schedule.   Like what you see and want to read more of Skoog’s work? Visit his blog or Copper Canyon Press and purchase your very own copy!

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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 solved

in 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 terror

has 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.

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.

Body Poem #6 (You knew the cats were coming, right?)

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IMG_0397The Wife Breaks Her Appointment at the Day Spa

 

The black cat shadows me.
Of my own free will, I watch
the breath lift his fur, replace.

I draw a ragged breath
imagine legions of black hairs
stroking my lungs.

He sleeps with his head
soft world
on my wrist–gentle restraint. Who is waving?

I curse my dense bones
dream my diaphragm a knife
thrusting claws through my fingertips.

The air hums with his sleep (little death)
my ribs ache from vibration
fluttering inside. We are wreathed in birds.

A sparrow knocks
against the window (one gold eye open)
it’s feathers stick to my tongue

like snowflakes, melt into breakfast.

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Notes:  This is not nearly as dark as I would prefer.  Much like the kitten picture doesn’t reflect his size today.  I think the title is wrong.  Definitely a first draft.

At night, the dead: Read. Write. Poem.’s Virtual Book Tour Stops By…

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* Originally published here as part of Read. Write. Poem.’s Virtual Book Tour, this review can also be found in Poet’s Quarterly.

 

I am the second stop on the Read. Write. Poem. Virtual Book Tour. As such, please enjoy this break from my regularly scheduled vacation!  And, please, if after reading this review, you would like to purchase your very own copy of Lisa Ciccarello’s At night, the dead, please visit the Blood Pudding Press Etsy Shop!

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You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead.

 

Most of us fear the dead. We fear their reach from beyond, their spectral presence in the dark, looming over us while we sleep, the awful things they might do. After reading Lisa Ciccarello’s prize winning chapbook, At night, the dead, published by Blood Pudding Press, it becomes clear that, though the dead are most certainly here, they are not here to do us harm. Rather, they love us, the dead whose love is just a little series of letters. They would like to be remembered, and maybe to have a voice.

 

We are supposed to house the dead in our mouths, but we let them stay in our throats when we sing.

 

The dead, it seems, seek a voice. In the dual role of poet and medium, Ciccarello chooses not only to house the dead in her mouth, but to sing:

I am the dead I am the dead
I am the dead. The song I know.

The mouth is the entryway, the tunnel through which the dead find their voice. Ciccarello’s haunting lyrics–surreal, pensive, often mysterious– linger in our psyche, long after they have provided the release the dead are seeking.

 

Just as mortals, having seen a ghost, will question their own vision, so readers of At night, the dead may question what is real and what is Ciccarello’s fantastic imagination.   The dead put their fingers in your mouth, the narrator asserts. Despite the next line, You are dreaming, you will soon question whether you, the reader, are awake or asleep, whether there are fingers in your mouth or not. Ciccarello’s stream of consciousness prose poems lull you into a sort of waking sleep-walk. In time, we (readers) take on a spectral form, hovering over each poem, studying it as the dead study the living when:

you are asleep & inside the dream the dead rise up & their bodies are gone but their love has a form & they come to love you but it isn’t a dream…

 

Like the dead, we become ghosts, floating through each piece, accepting it’s improbability for ethereal truth.

 

I want to keep telling you about the dead, the narrator says. They write the same word over and over again. Ciccarello does not write the same word over and over again, though there is a ghostly echo to the repeating clues she gives us in each of these sixteen poems.

 

Indeed, taken as a whole, the collection is a tightly woven tapestry of encounters with the dead, stitched together by recurring threads: salt on widow sills, luminous coins, burned paper, house and home. Comprised mostly of prose poems, each piece links almost imperceptibly to the next, most often through these cleverly repeated images.

 

Coupled with Ciccarello’s skill at crafting poems that read like small prayers or incantations, such repetition serves not to keep the dead at bay, but to welcome them, honor and invite them into the house they remember and give them

Everything they ever wanted: the window view, soap that floats, someone pressing down hard. Lips made out of paper. A smile that shines (just a flame at his mouth & so what).

 

We want to remember what was so close to our faces, the narrator tells us. So, too, the dead/ remember;/ yea & it is not enough. As Ciccarello’s haunting narrative continues in its melodic refrain, such surreal reasoning begins to make sense. Our home is full of beautiful boy & come on girl. The dead “have a home in the ground, but they forget.” Is it possible the dead are us? You and I, questing readers?

 

Without doubt, the dead are a metaphor for something. Just what is elusive, so we must continue to read and look for clues. In providing such mysterious little gems, Ciccarello—poet, medium, mouth-piece for the dead–does not disappoint. The sheer lyricism of her language can make a clue out of a seemingly irrelevant detail. Take for instance, this gorgeous morsel of truth:

Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought sparkling behind the next. In the patient necklace each will be touched.

 

Overall, At night, the dead is a haunting collection, though not in the traditional sense of ghosts and fear. Instead, it is a series of surreal linked vignettes, brief but memorable encounters with the elusive dead (who may or may not be you and I), ferrying a message that may or may not come clear as the final poem exhales its last syllable.

 

Do not be surprised, when, after you have finished that last poem, you find yourself going about your own days and nights trying to discover your own dead and what they are asking for. Do not be afraid when the salt is gone the dead touch your mouth.