This is a review written for Read Write Poem’s Virtual Book Tour. Ed Skoog‘s new collection, Mister Skylight, from Copper Canyon Press, is a major achievement.
Skoog’s use of language is disorientating, vivid and surprising, all the things I love about great poetry. In a recent interview with Dave Jarecki, Skoog said “The people in the poems are real people, the family and friends, but they become imaginary through the process of poetry.” One of the wonderful things this book does is give us insight into this process and in doing so, into the primacy of the poetic imagination even in spite of, or hand-in-hand with a skepticism about this primacy.
The ability of poetic language to surprise is evident on every page. Take this image from “Home at Thirty”
Even low clouds’ dark stucco seems
applied by the drowsiest journeyman.
The poem’s slow movement of hesitant return, the connotations of the household, of covering implied by “stucco” so much is communicated here.
Often the poems explore loss or the inability to communicate while at the same time communicating this through incredible imagery. As the speaker in “Recent Changes at Canter’s Deli” states
Who I am
and what I feel are irrelevant enough to be central
to the project of Contemporary American Poetry.
Here the poet and by extension the process of poetry, is caught between importance and marginalization. The tension of this position is captured by wild imagery, by imagery of wildness caught, as these lines from the same poem
Up in the haze some undiscovered animal
watches us, its plan mapped out, fire
swinging up the canyons, unfolding
until flame may flicker tip of sabertooth fang
in the museum where rare finds are hidden.
I, too, am a dinosaur.
The image is wild with movement and beautiful sound as the power of the poem to perceive the unnoticed threat is coupled at the same time with a sense of futility in communicating that threat. There is, throughout the book this exploration of the tension between of a kind of Wordsworthian idea of the power of poetry and the poet and the undercutting of this power.
One of my favorite poems in Mister Skylight, “Memory Loss,” offers a kind of object lesson on poetic language. There are a series of moments in which the speaker offers up an instance of poetic language and then provides a kind of explanation, as in
So when I write “starved tigers devour us
with an uncomfortable vitality”
I am thinking about all the people I’ve lost,
those torn, shredded, fouled, and swallowed
by the eagerness of car crash, cancer, stroke, old age, youth,
money, anger, love,
Here you get the origin of poetic language and a view of its status an an attempt — an attempt to encapsulate in language what can’t be fully said. The loss is circled over and over until what we see is the importance of the attempt. The poem in a sense can never say it all yet the attempt is of utmost importance. This is the work and power of the imagination.
The next scheduled stop on the book tour is Jill Crammond Wickham on Nov. 8.