A Moveable Famine
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (Starred Review)
Poet and Ploughshares editor Skoyles (The Smoky Mountain Cage Bird Society) launches this crackling autobiographical novel with a brash preface “bemoaning… the wasted lives of everyone who [does] not see the world through the lens of poetry.” This passion for the poetic life is treated with both mockery and sympathy, as we follow Skoyles from Queens, N.Y., to the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City; the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.; and the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Witty vignette by witty vignette, drink by stiffer drink, this leisurely paced autobiography chronicles the peculiar codes of the “claustrophobic,” competitive workshop culture and the “extracurricular activities at poetry’s finishing schools.” Its structure is pleasurably slack, casually zooming in on those writers living “grant-to-mouth.” One mild-mannered poet plays with his food by stamping out dactyls (smashing one pea, leaving the next two untouched), a classmate’s propensity for malapropisms energizes his verse, and a drunken Alan Dugan manages to throttle a graduate student and trip over a seagull in one action-packed night. Quietly emerging from this raucous, entertaining book is a portrait of the aesthetic education of a poet and a fond tribute to his “colony-hopping” fellows: “Many were eccentric, some were slightly mad, but all were thoroughly human.” (May)
May 19, 2014
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS by RON BERTHEL:
POET OFFERS LITERARY FEAST IN A MOVEABLE FAMINE
In an autobiographical novel, which parts are fiction and which are fact? Only the author knows for sure. But when such a work is as entertaining as John Skoyles’ “A Moveable Famine,” it hardly matters.
Skoyles is a professor at Emerson College in Boston, with several volumes of poetry and a memoir to his credit. In this, his first work of fiction, he invites readers to join him on a romp through 1970s academia, from his bath-time introduction to poetry in his parents’ white-collar home in blue-collar Queens, New York, to his circuit of post-grad poetry workshops and classes, from Texas to New England.
Nearly everyone is at least a little quirky — these are poets, after all! — including one particular master of the malaprop, who refers to “a chug of wine” and that staple of Russian literature, Pushpin.
These poets, students and teachers do plenty of bed-hopping and bar-hopping, with occasional breaks for poetry-related activities — you know, reading it, writing it and teaching it.
And as if academic and social stresses weren’t enough, Skoyles seems always to be confronted with some new health dilemma or short-circuited romance.
Skoyles’ prose is chock-full of images that must have been drawn from the poetic corner of his creative mind: a woman he admires “passed through … like a fragrance”; a teacher’s goatee “hung from his chin like the tongue of a shoe”; and a Chihuahua’s “eyes bulged as if overinflated.”
Although much of the narrative focuses on offbeat goings-on and their equally offbeat perpetrators, Skoyles includes an oddly touching episode about his role as research assistant to the highly respected poet and teacher Mitchell Lawson, who is staunchly devoted to his neighbor’s decrepit dog (named Uncle) and inconsolable when the pooch’s demise seems imminent.
There may be no rhyme in Skoyles’ poetry, but there’s every reason to read his delightful book.
June 30, 2014
THE MUST-READ BOOKS OF THE SUMMER WGBH-TV
July 3, 2014
Skoyles (The Situation, 2007), a poet, memoirist, and the poetry editor at Ploughshares, presents an autobiographical first novel recounting a moving and uproarious literary journey. It begins in working- class Queens, pauses at an undersexed all-male Jesuit college, and then surges on to the booze-fueled excesses of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center, and Yaddo, with the protagonist’s desire and drinking moderated, briefly, during a semester teaching in Dallas, Texas. Skoyles’ title, meant to evoke the ambitions of the Lost Generation, skewers Hemingway’s pretentiousness while signaling his narrator’s haplessness: poetry is serious, and he is serious about it, yet lust and longing keep interrupting, hilariously. Drinking with Raymond Carver or Robert Creeley, or listening to the story of how the beautiful girl he pines for refuses John Cheever’s weird advances, Skoyles’ hero remains unsentimental and positively allergic to nostalgia. “‘Always Eros,’ [a friend] said. ‘Backward, it’s Sore!’” So it is. Skoyles’ prose is very fine, almost epigrammatic, and it’s hard to believe that a funnier novel will be published this year.
May 1, 2014
THE BOSTON GLOBE
Writers, in groups, have a reputation for displaying certain behaviors: incestuousness, alcoholism, competitiveness, eccentricity, and pretensions. They have earned this reputation fairly. If you want first-hand evidence of the basis for this reputation, look no farther than John Skoyles’s A Moveable Famine. All the deep talk, competition, and moments of pretension come to shape our hero, then, ultimately make him stronger, capable of writing this book with a firm, humane, and always genial hand. Full review.
May 28, 2014
Poet John Skoyles’s autobiographical novel, A Moveable Famine, reveals his coming-of- age as a writer, from his days at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to his fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and at the Yaddo mansion in Saratoga Springs. Brushes with literary icons, including Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Carver, seamy anecdotes from the early 1970s and ’80s, and everyday collegiality as well as rivalry merge to create an episodic tale of ambition. Through the stories of real and composite characters, poetry, which Skoyles once felt “was invisible,” becomes a viable art.
As graduate students in awe of multiple talents, Skoyles and his companions encountered plenty of hijinks. The author recounts the infidelities of a professor, meetings with women who moonlighted as amateur strippers, outings at the neighborhood bar, surprising readings given by visiting writers, and the comedy found at the Iowa poetry workshop. Amid the competitive nature of the program, the band of aspiring poets began finding a measure of success.
The most poignant thread involves Skoyles’s Iowa professor, poet Mitch Lawson, a formalist with a slim output whose intimidating demeanor belied a complex figure. Skoyles’s time as Lawson’s research assistant reveals his own growth as a writer who shed his New York influences to forge his own style. The transformation from being a beginner, who learned “by stumbling,” to becoming a writer whose work was published in journals is presented as a series of gradual shifts.
Chapters set in Provincetown take a leisurely, slice-of-life approach. Skoyles emphasizes social gatherings rife with non sequiturs, along with sexual misadventures. Scenes with writers such as Alan Dugan, Gregory Corso, and Robert Creeley underscore the work center’s high- spirited environment. Stanley Kunitz in particular emerges as a well-drawn guide given to making wise remarks, including the advice that the ending of a poem “should be a door and a window” and that poets should “live in the layers / not on the litter.”
The book’s focus on the inner sanctum of a masters-in-fine-arts program and on the wilder side of elite residencies may seem narrow, but Skoyles seldom preaches to the choir.
With a narrator who is seemingly shepherded along by luck, A Moveable Famine offers a gently satirical, funny take on a world marked by eccentricity.
NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS:
John Skoyles’ “autobiographical novel,” A Moveable Famine, whose title pays ironic homage to Ernest Hemingway, illuminates one poet’s journey from his childhood affinity for verse to a life devoted to its crafting.
A series of anecdotes both laugh-out-loud humorous and searingly poignant, Skoyles’ narrative is at once fast-paced and poetic. From a Queens childhood to an all-male Jesuit university in Connecticut, at Iowa’s competitive workshops and storied bars, in Provincetown with poetry’s aspirants and gurus, and finally to a long professorial career, the narrator relates his personal and professional comings of age.
He does so within the tumultuous contexts of the Vietnam conflict, a sexual revolution, and thoughtful reassessments of his traditional upbringing while among the practicing literati.
Early on, the narrator tells his readers, “We were hell-bent to become poets, but we were students. Those who taught us were hell-bent to become poets, but they were teachers. We were all hell-bent to become poets and all poets stood in our way.” This refrain pervades the work, illustrating the constant tension between the solitude every writer needs and the community every writer desires.
While competition reigns supreme in Iowa, generosity prevails in Provincetown, though both locales serve up a handful of revered mentors (Harvey and Lawson in Iowa, Kunitz in Provincetown), temporary lovers or longed-for bedmates (Jeanne the former, Belinda the latter), rivals-turned-friends (Barkhausen and the dead-too-soon McPeak), and—oh, yes—lines and lines of verse.
Skoyles is both modest about his accomplishments and adept at noting them in understated prose: “I met with Stanley [Kunitz] when he came to judge the applications. He said he heard I had a lot of girlfriends. I joked that I loved women. ‘You must love poetry more,’ he said.”
Poetry’s rigor and lingering cadences grace Skoyles’ confident prose. Upon receiving a ten-dollar check for “In Van Gogh’s Room,” Skoyles learns that the line, “Crisp flowers show their teeth,” helped ensure his place in the Iowa workshop.
Of his yearning to impress and bed Belinda Schaeffer, he writes: “Everything she did was refined, calm and graceful, but the careless way she placed her books on the bar, almost recklessly, gave me hope that perfection was not something she demanded from others. She might tolerate someone like me, common as well as harmless, like a water stain.”
A particularly poignant series of episodes in the narrative illustrate the devoted relationship between Skoyles’ poet/professor Lawson and a maimed dog named Uncle. As Lawson’s assistant, Skoyles finds himself clipping the dog’s toe nails, his own relationship with his mentor deepening as he realizes the depth of emotion Uncle evokes in Lawson. Lawson both covets and endures the pain the dying dog inspires. And Skoyles tells the reader “Uncle left behind a scent like a rainy day in autumn—decay, wet leaves and mud.” Both the man/dog relationship and Skoyles’ reflections about it remind the reader that poetry lurks about the mundane and the daily.
While at Iowa, Skoyles still reacts with surprise when a woman named Wendy refers to him as a poet. He shows his friend Ridge acceptance letters from Chicago Review and Poetry Northwest. When Ridge smiles, Skoyles reveals his own tentativeness, telling the reader: “I needed the physical proof for myself. Everything else about poetry was invisible—it wafted around and sometimes through us. So seeing a concrete thing, even a slip of paper I’d toss to the wind on my way home, and even if that paper clung to the base of a litter basket, it was no longer an idea or a feeling, but something real.”
Fame, or its more modest brothers, respect and admiration, pop like air bubbles above the narrative’s ebb and flow. Men and women who have been elevated to “personages of poetry” visit classes, declaim and sometimes ape at readings, and mingle some or intimately with their prodigies. They are, to the narrator’s eyes, feasting. But Betty, an instructor at Dallas’s McGuire University, where Skoyles first teaches, is nearly starving. She tells Skoyles she is retiring: “Over the years she had occasionally taught composition, until displaced entirely by those from Yale. She stared glassy-eyed out the window and quoted Gogol on his stint as a university professor with words that scorched themselves into my [Skoyles’] brain.—‘Unrecognized I mounted the rostrum, and unrecognized I descended from it.’”
Recognized for sure, and perhaps one day to join the lexicon of the most anthologized, John Skoyles, poet, editor of Ploughshares, and Emerson College professor inhabits and influences the world of verse. In his poem, “Autobiography,” printed in The New Yorker (March 31, 2014), he writes: “I did not lead my life/although my life followed me,/. . . Yes, it rained/but there were not a lot/of tears,/only a very large one/breaking over everything.”
Like readers of A Moveable Famine and his assorted verse, this poet/professor/man dwells in the certain uncertainty of human life. Perhaps he is sustained by his mentor Stanley Kunitz’s mantra, “When we are uncertain, that’s when we are most alive.”
His narrative feels alive. And satisfying, too. If not a feast, no famine, either. Recite his words aloud and a reader tastes them on lips, teeth, tongue. Yum.
Secret Frequencies: A New York Education
John Skoyles is a wonderful storyteller, by turns hilarious and street-smart and wise, and he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to grow up in the most urban of urban environments. This is a fine and beautifully detailed book.
— Charles Baxter
A deeply engaging and funny book by a marvelous writer.
— Tracy Kidder
A salty, entertaining coming-of-age story with a real-life Sopranos cast. Skoyles’ evocation of gritty, unhomogenized Manhattan in the post-Beat era particularly won my heart.
— Joyce Johnson
Skoyles brings a novelist’s poise and pace to Secret Frequencies…He captures the enormous mystery and thrill of a young man in the city.
— The New York Sun
John Skoyles’ memoir has the texture and humor of “Angela’s Ashes,” offering an Italian-American boyhood in Queens and coming of age in the Manhattan of the 1960s, as told by a wonderfully generous, honest and vulnerable mid-life poet.
— The Boston Sunday Globe
The Smoky Mountain Cage Bird Society (Issued in paperback as Generous Strangers)
Elegantly written, wry, and wise…
— James Carroll, author of An American Requiem, winner of the National Book Award
A compassionate and loving – and funny – tribute to everyday life. I found a moment of grace in each of John Skoyles’ richly textured stories.
— Steven Lewis, author of Zen and the Art of Fatherhood
A Little Faith
Clear-eyed but passionate, sarcastic but grave, all at the same time.
— Alan Dugan
A penetrating vision through the ordinary.
— The American Book Review
Wise, benevolent, witty. Many of the poems are capable of settling in the soul.
— The Northwest Review
In short lyrics that waste not a word, Skoyles reflects on death, guilt, religion, and other central topics, with metaphors as unusual as they are utterly right.
Skoyles projects a sharp sense of place (Queens, NY) and time (now), in an original voice.
— The Associated Press
Skoyles’ poems have a kind of racy urgency that reflects the city’s pace. They finish themselves in a page, tight and compact, using the shortcut of simile, the quick bridge of humor. For poems so full of linguistic playfulness, there is a surprising accuracy of perception.”
— The Georgia Review
His lyric, compassionate and observant poems project simultaneously a dignity and a modesty which is not quite like any other contemporary poet.
— Puerto del Sol
Definition of the Soul
Bull’s eye images… Skoyles scrapes at the surface of everyday things and finds a wonderful strangeness just underneath.
— Harvard Review
Poems written with a receptive ear for music, a visceral sense of rhythm, and a penetrating vision through the ordinary.
— American Book Review
AND THEN SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENS: ON THE POETRY OF JOHN SKOYLES
BY DAVID RIGSBEE THE CORTLAND REVIEW, ISSUE 64, 2014
The phrase, “a poet’s poet,” is a sure-fire way to draw a yawn. And making superfine, hair-splitting discriminations at the tiptop of virtuosity was ever a boring pastime for the peeps. Yet the epithet is meant to indicate something beyond someone’s approval (presumably someone you don’t know): the acknowledgment of a grace potential, an ability to fine-tune the instrument to fit the still sad music of humanity to the Music of the Spheres—an activity denied humble artisans who proceed merely by way of craft. It also helps if your oeuvre is spare. It’s the kind of talent that leads you to reflect that you didn’t see that coming, not with these simple means, nor with such a natural sense of inevitability, as if tout le mondeshould have seen it coming, but somehow missed it. Skoyles’ poems are full of such moments, and it might be that in his years of working and reworking familiar terrain, he might be able to walk away with the sobriquet and, and far from looking even more peculiar than an ordinarily accomplished poet, might lend it some of the same fairy dust it supposedly empties on the recipient. It seems to be the case, at any rate, that in each of his four collections, he lays out the perimeter of a personal terrain and then stays there until each recorded moment is a complete shining one or gray blank, whatever the case may be.
Two things stand out in the first collection, A Little Faith (1981), a book that works the ’70s Iowa poetry vibe to a fare-the-well. The first thing is the trying out of off-the-shelf rhetorical strategies. I’ll give but one example:
I don’t care at all who died today.
There’s not a single reason
to list the deaths today.
Maybe my father opens the sports page,
or my mother a mystery novel
in New York this afternoon,
a place where on another day
I could follow death like a woman
into the subway, where death
is just a headline, where boys
light freezing derelicts on fire.
This kind of thing—stylish though it is, close as it is to provocation—puts a drag on invention by insisting on a kind of inescapable logic (“there’s not a single reason…”) which, once pushed, reveals itself sheepishly as a device. But Skoyles is too fine a tailor to buy off-the-shelf for himself. The search for the right devices, however, did yield a gem.
I once had a poem taken by Ironweed, a literary magazine notoriously difficult to get into. I was elated when the editor, Michael Cuddihy, accepted my poem and enclosed a note saying that, except for one line, it was “a perfect poem.” Although his compliment set my face in a smile, I never figured out which was the offending line. But the idea of drawing razor-thin aesthetic distinctions was something that, as a young poet, I was drawn to and hence sought to acquire. I mention this because Skoyles did manage to write, as far as I can see, a perfect poem, one that has graced the refrigerators of several of my poet friends over the years. And this is no mean feat. Mark Strand once remarked to me that the whole point of composing poems is to write “an immortal line.” I thought, well, there it is. All of our compulsions meet, in Larkin’s phrase, in such a thought, and the emotional and psychological “compulsion” in Skoyles’ poem trumps the compulsion of form used to secure it. Here’s the poem:
No Thank You
Who’ll be the lover of that woman on the bench?
If she wants to hurt someone, she can use me.
Did she mean it, or was she trying to be unforgettable?
If she wants to use someone, she can hurt me.
I’ll use my manners to stay in one piece,
but I end up believing every excuse that I make.
I always sigh when I see a woman like this,
I don’t know where it comes from and I don’t know where it goes.
I thought I’d enjoy a beautiful day like today.
I took a walk in the park and then something like this happens.
To our Millennial ears, so attuned to deflections of whatever and as if, it comes as a refreshing message from the past that the forked nakedness of our hearts owns its determinations, even as it embraces its own intolerable (and unbreakable) lease. Grounded in the terms of subjectivity, the speaker is able to fold an immense amount of implication into his apparently hapless discourse. The duality of the stanzaic layout matches the “I thought… but then…” self-correcting (and self-truing) rhetorical structure, even as its fantasy grows into the mystery of failure and the hinted compensations that seem to arise at each of the impediments to fulfillment. When I said that the poem is a site where our compulsions all meet, I mean to suggest that the poem’s worth lies in its ability to spread and carve a delta of significance, something of endless complexity, although it is also, from another, more skeptical duck-blind, just a theme-and-variation maneuver. The questions it raises are self-perpetuating: why do we desire? Why are we disappointed? Why doesn’t disappointment kill us, or conversely, why is disappointment, on another level, a desirable thing, perhaps even the real desideratum? And if the latter is the case, does the poem, in hugging its failure Stephen Crane-like, not lead us to a Frost-like direction, drawing us into the justice of failure and the complicity with our undoing? If that is so, then the only contrary movement is toward precise utterance—the perfect poem, the immortal line—to record, like the streak of a quark in an X-ray, our profound allegiance to the néant, which seems to have been hooked by what was once the thought of a dalliance, someone on a bench, just as momentary as we ourselves. And the reception, the reading, of the immortal line is likewise ephemeral. Let’s face it, it only has to last a nanosecond longer than you do to clinch that immortality. Perhaps that is a question of (poetic) justice too.
The stance also—vulnerable, alienated, yet fraternal—radiates a sense that his willingness to get down into the muck will establish solidarity with the ordinary. And yet the fact that he wrote a “perfect” poem that expresses that solidarity shows him parting company with the ordinary. Say what you will, the very fact of writing a poem about anything establishes ipso facto an advantage—but of what? Perhaps just something as simple as a trace of a freedom that once was intended to be made manifest here, in the life always already leaving us. In a later poem, “Uncle Grossman,” the uncle in question is given to delivering such riddling bromides as this: “Pain makes a world that would not exist/ except for pain.” You might say the same for love. Or desire, which makes up, then reflects over its own incompletion. Unless we are all poets (a premise worth pondering if only for a New York minute), the poet is the exception to every other human type, and his pledges of allegiance notwithstanding, his is less a report than a representation, less a cri than a metaphor. He insists on authenticity, neglecting to recuse himself from his own fabrications. The inescapable self-awareness accompanying this difference in a poet, in every hue from narcissism to self-castigation, is the hallmark of both modernism and postmodernism, as has been noted by everybody.
I find it noteworthy that with his first collection, Skoyles’ literary intelligence quotient is already sufficiently high that it works in terms of emotional exploration, a domain traditionally gender-fogged. These early poems seem interested in exploring personal relationships, their meaning, and their ability to make meaning. It was once a truism that young men didn’t think about relationships as such, and if they did, they didn’t commit their thoughts to paper. As a young man, Skoyles did both, which puts him at the head of the class, where, as he puts it in “Hard Work,” such “sullen men” as keep their secrets to themselves find their luck at cards “makes them experts at bluffing.” Just as the poet adjusts to the ordinary to seem a part, so the taciturn players conceal their lack of expressiveness and opt for bluffing, as if to fear that the lack of expression—the general condition—would draw attention to their difference, instead of to the prevalence of their malaise.
A Little Faith is in many ways an apprentice work, as busy looking over its own shoulder as it is looking into the—dare I call it this?—heart. It’s also parochial, deferential to its Catholic roots, nostalgic for the Queens bona fides, where as an only child, he learned about being old by taking on the fierce equity of the young. Was he a senex puer? Probably. It’s not that he had a lousy childhood; on the contrary, it seems to have been of a self-sufficient nuclearity, as well as lovingly interconnected, but that everything he experienced passed through the temporal membrane into what we perhaps too-broadly call personal myth. The original templates at his disposal, the Iowa-neo-surrealism-lite he quickly discarded. They handle anecdote, but they don’t encourage verbal ambition.
Ten years separated A Little Faith from Permanent Change, and the latter title suggests a thematic connection—not to say bookend—to the earlier volume. It is more specifically about the poet as member of a time, a city, a religion, even a borough. The poem as memory, often of loss or imminent loss, typically comes to uneasy but fateful rest on a paradox. The clarity of detail in the poems of this collection—indeed, of all four of Skoyles’ volumes—seem threads leading to lost worlds. He mentions that his grandmother, working in fabrics, “restitched a hat/ for Guy Lombardo’s wife,” and it should be remembered that Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians gave the world New Year’s Eve as surely as did Robbie Burns. But just as probably, the poet remembered how Lombardo also romanced the post-war generations of newlyweds in Levittown through summers when he played in the Jones Beach Theater built by his powerful (and unmusical) friend, master-builder Robert Moses. All that is also stitched into the image. Similar images await unpacking. But wait, you say, isn’t this the case with any poet’s images? Doesn’t a paperclip on Mars rewrite the Martian chronicles? Success in Skoylesian moments makes you rethink the career of images you have read in other poets: some are truly original and fetching in their strangeness, others hackneyed and predictable, without being inevitable. Or inevitable-seeming (the same thing). It doesn’t take many repetitions (just one) to equal a cliché. There are no clichés in Skoyles’ work.
The poet, as do all poets, sides with the underdog—here including the losers and bums, but he is never naive or sentimental in this identification. Rather, the emotional dynamic range seems to go from not-so-bad-as-that to you-need-to-get-over-it. He trims the extremes (“the way I was taught to see things”) and recognizes in that confession how much is left out of the account. You had, so to speak, to be there—but that is the case with all our destinies (and destiny in Sloyles, reassuringly lowercase, seems more fitting than the conventional “life”). A certain disappointment, therefore, haunts Permanent Change: parents, loving though they were, are gone, whose own lives show what’s family in a family resemblance, including an affirming stoicism. The family resemblance stretches its democracy to include acquaintances and even strangers. Thus we are verged on permanent change, which is, among other things, a virtuous vantage point, even as it is also an oxymoron.
Skoyles’ poems depict the world of his parents’ generation, and ours. In this way, generations of New Yorkers link up as contiguously, as causally and as aesthetically as the cultures they generate. The approach is often spectatorial—the poet observes the scene he depicts:
It was easier to see yourself
than the street outside
from behind dull windows
of the candy store.
As the scenes are now gone, except as they appear in verbal images—which is to say they be metaphysical, Skoyles imagines them in terms of memory’s climate—fair or foul, baking or freezing, each memory standing in its own weather, and weather, and we experience that too, as if no image were pure:
This is what the climate
of memory must be:
to breeze through untouched
like a boy in a museum
who moves his fingers
along a death mask’s chilled lacquer,
then spins away,
into the neither comprehending
nor indifferent heat.
The weather of memory, its emotional envelope, stands so to speak apart from the objects of memory and establishes their irreducible mystery. The emotional range doesn’t veer off into dazzle or burst into ecstasy. Dazzle can’t be harnessed and ecstasy won’t do: the lacrimae rerum are more a philosophical sigh than a drench of tragic resignation. As he opens “Dark Card,” “Grief that lingers begins to mock.” Skoyles doesn’t mind using modifiers to adjust the focus on details. It is one of his talents to add the qualifier whose freshening allows the reader to pause and run her hand over the new construction. Had its currency rendered it a cliché, I would be tempted to say that he allows (and knows that he allows) readers to “savor” the details, like wine snobs drawn to the bouquet of a particularly fine Malbec:
I started to feel extravagant scorn
for the sluggish chat brought on
by flowers splayed like open hands,
her fundamental rouge, and the cold
that trailed everyone’s coat
through the putty-like air
of the small funeral home.
I missed the quick encapsulating glee
with which she spoke,
rushing everything together
in the energetic tongue
of those who live alone.
Like the moralist poet in a poem by Zbigniew Herbert who plays his music by banging stick to board, Skoyles likes the tunes that can be played on the two strings of attributive modifier and noun. Note how he works two directions with
The commuters are slightly incognito,
spies from past holidays,
wearing useful gifts against the cold.
(“On the Train”)
Saying “slightly incognito” is like saying slightly famous or slightly suicidal: the phrase slips past its congruency marker to arrive at a condition irrationally precise. And “wearing useful gifts” leads us directly to the pathetically practical gifts that seem to condition our patience with Christmas as surely as the unwrapping of fruitcake. Moreover, we know the wretches forced to wear the ugly scarf, the pathetic sweater, and our embarrassment is laced with gratitude, as Philip Levine notes in a poem about absurd socks that in Detroit winter wring gratitude out of the wearer.
Skoyles wants us to think of him as a passerby—a spectator before a diorama of players. But he is a flaneur, curious and in-the-know, a sampler. The thing about aflaneur is this: the wandering curiosity and the savoir-faire are the mirror image of the Blakean, open, even agreeable, wonderment, but they are not willing to cease shading the brightness. He seems to know intuitively or outright, that the sense of wonder is at odds with intelligence, which when you come from Queens, is a survival skill. Wonder is not.
Skoyles is the kind of person who takes note of deaths rather than births. That is merely to say that he also prefers departures to arrivals, to associating with the last, instead of the first. The past, rather than the future, gets his attention:
My book of astrophysics fanned out charts
to prove man
a nothing in the cosmic fray,
and it was for a nothing,
a death, that I climbed the train.
Never have our neighbors been so stranded
in their past. One tries to get to work
and the sound of his footfalls
is surprisingly loud
like pagers turned in waiting rooms.
The act of reading, Skoyles knows, can be found in just this way. Reading—and by extension, the poem—and metonymically, literatue itself—even at the level of the haiku or a whimper—broadcasts its status as surely as if James Earl Jones were in the house. In this case, the house is a waiting room (a doctor’s waiting room?). With that thought comes all the rage of poetry as a kind of “therapy” (Keats-style, not Mary Oliver). The waiting room calls up another set of meanings when Skoyles undertakes his most recent volumes, Definition of the Soul and The Situation, as we wait to hear the judgment of the experts: physicians—men of science—come to heal, but also to pass sentence like judges. The physician, the master of the physical is no less judge than Hizzoner, who sends you to the slammer for a myriad of violations. And as we write about the paramount events of our lives, Skoyles takes his illness—and the body itself as text. “The Repairman” hints of a new kind of case examination and judgment:
I can’t help compare myself
to this man, Mr. Moore:
his prizing of age
to a precious degree;
the frank manhandling
with which he divides
the redeemable from the junk.
In poems like “Holy Cross Church,” “The Repairman,” and “Front Street,” Skoyles comes back to familiar bookends: the starting out, followed in due course by the disappointment of wheel-spinning, followed by the silence and one’s wish to wring out a few drops of consolation, even when requiescat in pace is superseded by the more utilitarian pro forma.
The poet in Skoyles haunts the graveyards of New York, the kind that are staples of mob movies, where the bereaved wear the same razor-black as the cars and it’s always autumn, when the leaves try to become metaphors. What better time to talk about worth, than to be that disenchanted figure at the funeral, the one who stands between the yews in dark glasses and vanishes before having to undergo perfunctory consolations with persons, also in black, also in sunglasses. That mystery man makes an elegy and puts the world as he has felt it into it. Such a self-portrait (“every elegy is a self-portrait”) joins the big (death, meaning…) with the small (the death of ordinary individuals, their quick irrevocable demotion to nothingness). In keeping with Skoyles’ squeezing of bandwidth, removing like the old Dolby system the high hissing and mushy low moaning—both verging on and bleeding into noise. It’s measured as classical in this way, but restraint in the face of dying family is not the same as restraint in the fact of an actual, personal, physical pain of one’s own. Uncle Grossman was right: there was no world there until pain came along to make it. But world-making is like that, while memory, death, and pain, plus elegy itself, conspire to make a world that wouldn’t be otherwise.
The compressing of the range moves in inverse proportion to the poet’s ego, and so it should hardly come as a surprise that Skoyles is a poet of modesty (not a modest poet), whose lack of pretension would seem to stand somewhat at odds with the bite of his diction; it’s one part Dalmation, one part Doberman. The Situation(1998) begins with a version of a poem by Pasternak:
The attempt to separate my soul from yours
is like the creaking of a lamppost
against a sapling in the wind.
Soon someone will come
and hack through the more fragile one.
The fragile one is, by suggestion, the more loving, as Auden noted. This is as far as a poet of Skoyles’ dignity will allow; there is no emotion creep. The humility of the poet extends to the modesty of his subjects, and it is not without sympathy that sex for some is a chunky experience, best encountered first through the ear:
Sex for them was a burly thud
that sacked the women
and bound the men
to their friends at Elmhurst Lanes
and the thermos factory.
Baudelaire, in a sardonic, if sober aside, reminds us that sex is the “lyric for the masses,” the body singing electric, though when heard from the exterior perspective—you have to then proceed with a little faith. And he does. The spot-on language isn’t a covering for tenderness: it is that tenderness itself. It is perfected language fitted to the dignity of the imperfect. It is an exaltation (you have to go through a lot of language before you get to a “burly thud”). But even with the exalted in language, you have to refine powers of discernment. As he says in “Elegy for Munro Moore”: “A friend in a dream/ Is not a friend but a dream…” The dignity arises out of an incompleteness—of ambition, of resources, of desire. Skoyles achieves what a poem can do so well, when it does it at all, and that is construct the praiseworthy. For what was praiseworthy before there was a poet to articulate its terms? Oscar Wilde says in De Profundis that “Every thing to be true must become a religion.” Skoyles, who has spent ample ink repudiating the religion of his birth, manages grudging (and sometimes more than grudging) respect for the incense and saints, while aware of the dead end of superstition:
So for a time, the train existed
only in the mind of my dreamer,
until I woke
to the name of my hometown,
and rushed off
into an open-air station
straddled by cathedrals.
Sun touched the brass locks on luggage
as if torching the brass locks on luggage
as if torching them open,
and an overwhelming church bell
tolled a soul from its body.
The poetry, not the religion, verges on magical realism here (“as if torching the brass locks on luggage/as if torching them open”) that reminds one of the James Wright, who saw “the droppings of last year’s horses/ blaze up into golden stones.” While there is a solemnity to the soul’s response to its summons, it is “overwhelming,” and hence not subject to choice. At the same time, the image is visionary, a moment of beholding that begins at once to breed multiple implications. For this reason alone, understatement never goes out of style. When it comes to matters of the spirit, Skoyles is a friendly, though he steers well clear of any unfounded hooey:
We stand and kneel and sing
under the steeple where god
is nothing more than god,
but man is more than man
because he talks to those not there.
(“St. Bartholomew’s Church”)
From my perspective, this distance extends his authority: it’s the classical tack, to turn back from the shoals, but leave fellow travelers in mind of the land mass behind them. Skoyles’ credo, typically posed as a question, not a statement of belief, can be found in “History”:
If we take too much care,
fearful of the god
whose footfalls we hear approaching,
we go nowhere,
caught in the song
of our age,
the flickering storm of ash
from the raked leaves,
and in the flurry,
a black butterfly
bats the air
as it dips through the cinders.
Which one’s on fire?
Which has a home in this world?
Skoyles’ most recent collection, The Situation, raises an issue: what, in fact, is the situation? To which the poet answers, using rhetorical thrust-reversers, with a series of questions:
It’s tough, isn’t it, star,
to be harangued
by every strain
of brimming heart?
It’s hard, isn’t it, moon,
when crowds fidget
with their swizzle sticks
as you brighten the bay?
And head, doesn’t it hurt
when love ignites
its pesky orbit
and all logic strays?
That logic strays usually signals the onset of logistical hardship, but here, it’s emotional pain. We make a sort of category mistake, he suggests, bringing logic’s rage for order to the heart, and the idealism that fuels the heart’s red-pencil agenda falls similarly to a “tough” lot, being harangued by what it should be fed by. The situation, in other words, arises when our best selves meet to find commerce with our starkest needs: category mistake indeed! It’s human fate to be incongruous, he seems to imply, and yet it is our ill-fitting condition that is the very one that fits. As the late Russell Edson put it, “and of all the things that could have happened, this is the very thing that happens.” That is “the situation.” Another thing that happens on the way to our desire is illness, and Skoyles’ experience in that dour realm brings out the Frost in him, which is to say the human face of Realpolitik. The regnant tone is now fastened to the language that clears up our most desired misconceptions, including the trust that things will work out. Of course they won’t, but that’s not the point—at least not the main point. Rather, the diction is bright, the cadences—rarely straying farther to in space than the tetrameter line—in proper order, neither rushed, nor tempted by the call of the wool-gatherer:
A girl pats her forehead
with a powder puff
as if dotting the letter i
(“The Wish Mind”)
The Situation could be Skoyles’ testament. There is something in virtually every poem I would like to point to with admiration, often that thing of a moment’s notice that Yeats reminds us took years to get. It’s a book that I’ve added to the essential collections of my generation: I think that now makes half a dozen. There is brilliance in what it refrains from doing (because it does it with panache), though brilliance is exactly the kind of imported word that doesn’t get what makes Skoyles’ work so impressive. He is the protégé of Alan Dugan (“Uncle Dugan” is felicitous), his forerunners Frost and Larkin. He is in turn, an emanation from the 17th century, who would have been right at home with the religious Metaphysicals. He likewise harmonizes with the musical Elizabethans like Fulke Greville and Thomas Campion. Looking at other languages, I sense poets as varied as Montale, Cavafy, and Vallejo, whose variations are reconciled in the kind of plain Modernism most familiar in art: Morandi, rather than Picasso. At the end of the day, however, he has made his own music and so leaves questions of derivation moot. They are poems of a high poetic intelligence, managing in modest verbal circumstances a meeting of occasion and formal precision that I don’t see in his more flamboyant peers. Call me elitist, but I am moved by this very intelligence because its manifestation is a man whose use of language honors both the subject and the language itself, which, until he came along, didn’t unify, esteem, lament, or laugh this particular way:
I stand back
and perform that cruel gymnastic
for the soul:
I take a good look at myself.
And I begin to laugh
until I am whole again
until I know it’s not funny.