Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Run the Red Lights by Ed Skoog (Released by Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
I write about the West and the South and home,
their tenderness and trouble and the weird spirits
breaking the best days. Still I find myself down
by the river at twilight.
from “Run the Red Lights” (page 24)
Ed Skoog’s third book is far from a masterpiece but continues to reflect upon the poet’s range of voice and expressed interest in the self and the other as directly observed through the callings of everyday life. Following behind the now-ethereal releases Mister Skylight (2009) and Rough Day (2013), which turned Skoog outward into the world as a poet worth knowing, Run the Red Lights continues the narrative without sacrificing legitimacy or bending to the status quo of 21st century American poetry. Fortified integrity allows Skoog’s greatest strengths and most visible struggles to be established in plain sight.
At 73 pages and 32 poems, Run the Red Lights is a temporal kaleidoscope of musings, reflections, and considerations brought forth by a poet whose time appears to be predominantly occupied by parenthood and familial responsibilities and respects. A combination of retrospection on the locales, family members, and otherwise symbolic figures and moments Skoog encountered in his life, the poems in this small book are densely woven yarns. They are stories filled with concrete details and abstract realities. The full life Skoog has lived and continues to live is one of clarity and is indeed admirable, though often such fullness, as seen in the poems themselves, tends to sprawl across the page, twist and warp and ironically strike out as limitation or constraint of the poems and their core subject matter.
[. . .] Stepping
into the shower at night, I am a howl
disembodied in the steam, concealing
what it might show. While they prepare
my body I hope a similar mood
assembles in the room, which I imagine
is steel and tile, with a drain.
from “Showering at Night” (page 31)
Despite the unpredictability and (perhaps) uncontrollable spines of these poems and how they carry themselves, their themes range greatly and are exciting, exquisite, tantalizing. Isn’t that always the case with Skoog’s poetry? The book is divided into three major sections (with an opening poem erupting straight out of Topeka, Kansas, where Skoog was once born and returns to timelessly, time and time again). Each of these three sections carries a slew of subjects, and is codified under banners of greater, and more wide-reaching themes. Part one includes poems about theater and acting, the act of nakedness, the Grateful Dead, houses lived within, the act of driving, the act of playing banjo, and the act of karaoke, to name a few. Skoog explores family, the nature and nurture of the physical body, and approaches the many qualities of awareness toward location and space and history.
The second section in Run the Red Lights explores parenthood, domesticity, the behaviors of the home, and, as Skoog is so well known to do, dives right into the cause and effect of the self. In the context of being a parent, Skoog’s continued voice, which arguably has not seen much dramatic change since his last release, is instead evolved through his new role as raising someone other than himself and taking care of a little version of himself. There is true magic of reflection occurring here in this book, and when it comes to an evolution of the eyes of a poet, the evolution is occurring through this new displacement a la responsibility.
Skoog tackles the minute details: the baby playing with the mirror, the microcosm of the combing of hair, the witnessing of protection from motel room spiders, and so on. More enduringly, Skoog also presses into traumatic and epic life circumstances that bring a greater sense of mortality and worth to the role of the parent as a protector in the context of the child’s presence. Episodes as such include the 2012 shooting at Seattle’s Café Racer, close to Skoog’s home at the time, and the Katrina flooding of the New Orleans Museum of Art. These scenarios, life experiences, are just two of the beautiful memoir mementos that bring out Skoog’s finest observations and most visceral sensibilities.
[. . .] The dismissal. A few days later
my son had his pertussis shots
and we strollered to the café sidewalk,
windows blue-tarped from inside, and on
the concrete, a thickness of candles
melted down, photos in baggies, laminated
testimonies, a potted sunflower,
a thousand secret objects.
from “Café Racer” (page 38)
Finally, the third section, which gave me the most trouble. Opened with arguably the best poem in the book, a short, lyrical piece poignant and humble in its appreciation toward a hot shower, the last sequence is harder to define, and may be emblematic of the challenges of focus and concentration in the life of the author. Skoog describes scheduling, fatherhood, and development of the built landscape, to name a few themes. Subjects include chaotic (though neutrally so) environments and objects, including a playground, a construction site, a radio, and the act of rock climbers climbing—all sets of images that are difficult to set into focus. Unfortunately, these realms of disjointed and staggered imagery are trying when printed on the page, and pull the reading experience apart, save for some of the more beautiful lines, which are always, of course, expected and received through Skoog’s lyrics. The challenge of narrative is overwhelming here, as it has been elsewhere.
As seen over the course of his personal canon, Skoog is a poet whose voice benefits from explosive lines that arrive calmly amidst poems bound to and constrained by the life story. In Run the Red Lights, we see some of Skoog’s finest language (quotes used in my response here are intentionally evocative of this idea), and yet we also see some of the major pitfalls Skoog brings with him. The enormity of an enormous life can serve as anchor but can often serve as burden, and Skoog’s work falls on the line between the two. My personal feelings toward the poems include a desire for more of the stark, more of the chiseled, more of the slow and orderly. Whether Skoog will ever take his poetics toward that space is a question that cannot be answered here. For now, it is important to look at Run the Red Lights as a wondrous book of rough beauty that showcases the transition and challenge of a poet entering a new fatherhood and thus reaching new levels of introspection.
[. . .] And smoke converting
past into future. I’m not beyond
the future’s conclusions,
future spirits seeing my intentions
wherever I hide from myself.
from “Downstream” (page 56)