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)
Review by Judson Hamilton (@judson_hamilton)
TV in the corner
(pearly whites sparkle as our new Oral B
leftover ketchup packets
Bound. Chair. Rope.
Endless Lined "Up against the wall!"
with glitter blackened hands hours
facts of absence rendered senseless by testimonial opinion polls and
Seared white hot with
the panting of
old age and
the wet heat of breath
(there was so much ash. there was so much ash. there was so much ash. there was so much ash.)
Person 811 stood with one hand spread at the glass panel over the woman, stroking with his thumb and his ring finger the raspy spread of where her body breathed. The woman’s eyes were closed and kept on closing – innumerable lids. Her gut was stacking up at each new instant with fat in fat like pyramids. An ageless dark rouged through her shape tracing her veins. His tips ached where he could not remember before that he’d touched her, and not the other way around. Other men before him had left their mark there on the glass from the same rubbing, though the father could not smell them or defer – he could only taste the itch of it.
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hi, it's darth. The Virgin Mary rarely gives interviews; this is due, in part, to her ascension to heaven. The fact that I'm dead, made it easier to reach her. What can I say--all things being equal, I had a much better shot at being granted this interview than did some of the old testament wraiths who'd been flitting pompously about, going on about their allotment of awarded virgins, on the tails of lives of virtue. Sheesh. Some caliphate dudes think they're ALL that. Maybe they just thought they'd wait...for a simple twist of caliphate. Anyhow, without further ado (or precipitation, lest my point be easily mist) (the puns! There's no sopping them now...) I present to you, reader, jewel of my eye, twinkle of my apostrophe, little saucer of pluck in my best alien invasion...an interview with the well-robed woman of Galilee.
Mary: darth! So sorry I'm late!
darth: Late, shmate. Relax. Armageddon isn't until later in January 2017.
Mary: Are you coming to the post-inagural women's march, in Washington?
darth: I'll be there. I heard there'll be no access for the women to the Washington Monument, though. The feds are hecking up access, in avoidance of a scandal...
Mary: A famous literary character once said, "one pussy hair pulls more than a ton of steel." The women will have their day in Washington, in my view.
darth: Which literary character are you quoting?
Mary: Bonanza Jellybean.
darth: From "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues?"
darth: Wasn't there a lot of hitchhiking in that book?
Mary: I'm sort of a patron saint of ladies who hitch-hike, I reckon.
darth: I'm all thumbs here, a bit nervous to finally be meeting you-- I guess I should start posing some important questions. Do you ever hitch-hike?
Mary: I prefer to take advantage of a migration of swallows.
darth: Are you having fun with me?
Mary: I am trying to loosen you up!
darth: So here's the thing. Can I ask you a personal question? About your stance on rape?
Mary: Dude, that is a heavy query.
darth: But it has always bothered me. I mean, here was you,this kick-ass chick with a big heart for all of humanity, and god basically date-rapes you-- I mean, you weren't even allowed to look at his FACE when he knocked you up, and then he sends his angel to explain it all to you...and the rest...well, the rest...is history...
Mary: Wow, you are really upset. Hey, are you crying man? Here--you'll rust all of your armor--
darth: (Sobbing) It makes me so angry. God fucking dammit Mary. It has pissed me off now, more than ever before. In this political, climate....How do you bear it? How do you stand astride such flagrant bullshit? And wear your robes like a boss. What the hell. (Blows nose inside helmet, loudly.)
Mary: Man, thank you for your compassion here today. Let me tell you one thing, and it's the thing which really matters. Come on, listen to me. People are gonna use you for their own aims sometimes. But don't let it kill you. If you were a victim of somebody else's choice, don't let that mark you as somebody who is gonna rob another of her choice. Don't let being violated twist you. Okay? Hang onto your purity, and recognize it in others. That's the only way we are going to clean up this misogynist culture.
darth: Don't you want to kick god's ass?
Mary: God was an old man who died a long time ago. He had a wig and beard, which he used to stash in a cardboard box in an attic. That's the old god I grew up with. He made a world and tried to rule it, but the women rose up from the sea and sang to him, and before he could stop his ears up against their sound, they had commenced singing him back into his fetal waters,and there he bobbed, back in their smooth waters as if he were in quarantine. He was without a visa, beneath the shining spire of the Washington Monument.
darth: Was it Armageddon?
Mary: I think they will refer to it as impeachment.
-- January 12, 2017