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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas from Black Lawrence Press (2013). Black Lawrence will also bring out Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews next year.

And Then Something Like This Happens:
On The Poetry Of John Skoyles

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 monde should 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.

                              ("43rd Avenue")

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.

                              ("43rd Avenue")

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.

                              ("Dark Card")

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 a flaneur 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.

                                        ("Visit Home")

      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?

                                   ("The Situation")

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.



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