I’m intrigued by the tension in Jake Skeet’s [sic] poem: Its title juxtaposes love with death, and its rhythms press against the nettle-like images. The first stanza’s images are scarred and rough with “burr and sage,” “bottles” and the “cirrhosis moon,” yet the lines sound like a nursery rhyme (the first two lines are perfectly trochaic and the third is iambic). Many other lines in this poem are also iambic or trochaic, yet the subject matter is troubled. And the heavy use of monosyllabic words (the entire first line is monosyllabic, as are several others) creates a kind of hammering, unembellished tone.“Poem: Love Letter to a Dead Body,” Selected by Victoria Chang, NYTimes, 3-24-22.
Victoria Chang’s tight focus leaves room for the reader to negotiate with Jake Skeets’ poem for insight into its thematics. Who can remain in a state of mute contemplation around “scarred” images which monosyllabic trochees and iambs “press against” nursery-rhymishly? Mouthfeel wants substance as well.
on our backs in burr and sage / bottles jangle us awake / cirrhosis moon for eye // fists coughed up / we set ourselves on fire / copy our cousins / did up in black smoke / pillar dark in June // …
“Fists coughed up” unleashes utterance that wanders in a rugged syntactic Badlands where self-immolating voices “copy our cousins / did up in black smoke.” Is “did up” a demotic participle slur for “done up,” meaning “adorned” by black smoke — cremated, massacred, puffed, ritualized? Does the setting afire of self evoke intoxicated exultation or a corybantic ceremony? There may be hints of alcohol decimating a community; jaundiced self-destruction; a canoodling couple nursing a twelve-pack among tossed empties in a forlorn boot hill at town’s edge. In jangled, booze-addled dream, does the desert cough up defiant corpses in a place envisaged as a disrespected ossuary?
Interpretation feels like a game of why not? A poem’s story space is where words are urged to disgorge a lexical cargo in parsable sequence so as to image forth assertions or perceptions — whether in lean cuts or in extravaganzas. That space can matter to a certain stripe of reader; it’s one the poet-practitioner appears loath to mediate except circumspectly: Skeets’ subject matter is “troubled,”per Chang. Full stop.
Drunktown rakes up the letters in their names / lost to bone / horses graze where their remains are found // and you kiss me to shut me up / my breath bruise dark in the deep // leaves replace themselves with meadowlarks / cockshut in larkspur // ghosts rattle bottle dark and white eyed / horses still hungry / there in the weeds
Beside what could be vexed tribute paid to relations wasted and laid waste, there is twilight among flowers — “cockshut in larkspur” is a lilting embellishment; and there is a sere, haunted “deep” with shapeshifting, avian leaves where horses snuffle in the goathead and sparse grasses.
Little closure otherwise; rather a sense of being ghosted by words, of grasping at shades conjured by the speaker’s kissed breath. Their evasiveness troubles me. Perhaps it’s trouble the poem wishes to cause. The image I carry away keenly is that of the famished nags, “still hungry / there in the weeds.”
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