Ed Skoog. Rough Day.
In his second book, Rough Day, Ed Skoog is a master of mischief and misdirection. Skoog manipulates readers' expectations with quirky enjambments ("my brother is an orange / crate of records"), frequent syntactical shifts, and the absence of most punctuation and capitalization. He makes it tricky to determine where sentences or poems end. He even misleads with geographical detail, scattering place names that seem to offer grounding in time and space until he pulls the rug out by playing with both. ("I would give a full accounting of time / but cannot remember it.") Skoog's landscapes turn out to be less Kansan or Louisianan or Californian or Montanan or Washingtonian, though he's lived in all those places, and more hallucinatory.
For those with a limited appetite for disorder, I offer at least two reasons to spend time with this carefully disordered book. The first is that so many of
Skoog's lines are not just wonderful but funny. He writes, "my father is a plaid armchair that smokes." He writes, "history although it may be small / is a bee trapped in a car." Here's a man perfectly capable of ending a lovely poem in an unlovely way for a laugh:
my mind in its cold migration doesn't care where it lives will always move between a series of elsewheres latching satchel hurrying over the bridge up winding roads into the bamboo vantage over whale-farted seas
Second, in Skoog's work here, form arises artfully from content. William Carlos Williams describes this as the essence of free verse, when "the form of poetry is related to the movements of the imagination revealed in words." Skoog's imagination skitters about more than most.
The same lines that keep the reader off balance in Rough Day also keep these poems in perpetual motion. That is precisely the point. His publisher describes Skoog's impulse as "Zugunruhe," a German compound word for "the restless behavior of animals prior to migration" and, as the zealous back cover copy adds, "a metaphor for poetry as a propulsive behavior that keeps the mind on the move." Like wildebeests, these jittery poems wander far but with a sense of discipline, unified by anxiety.
In his first book, Mister Skylight, Skoog also addressed disturbance: the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. But this new work is spurred by other past, present, and future dangers. A stanza here and there hints at some of the sources of disruption in Skoog's life, including his mother's death, threats to the environment, war at a distance, his peripatetic adulthood, and becoming a parent. Skoog is the kind of father who looks down at the infant snuggled against his heartbeat and foresees the future rupture between them in terms of language:
the through time of loving electrical and ongoing busy beneath the skin and deafened it is why my son sleeps with one ear to my chest and will soon stop thinking to as language begins to fall apart midair
Over and over in these poems, Skoog seeks something to hold onto amidst so much swift change, as if he is "a pilot looking for any onrushing place to land." From an overwhelming sense of fragmentation, he builds a remarkably consistent and cohesive body of work. Though separated by first lines used as titles, and divided into five sections, these poems might also be read as one long search for both his personal and poetic identity.
"What's in these books that have come to me," Skoog asks in the collection's first line, continuing later in the same poem: "what is in this body that has come to me." Who is he, since no person is the same day to day in places that are never the same year to year? The rough day of the title could be a bad day, or any day described roughly--the only way any day can be described. As Skoog writes in a different poem:
I'm trying to find where influence end a force emigrant in spirit forget the old language
When he's not turning signs upside down, Skoog erects some trustworthy guideposts like these to point toward where he is aiming. Ending another poem that reflects on loss, he again refers to the challenge of changing the language:
they put me to bed I come back down to run between tables mother why am I writing this poem I am practicing that language of unfinishable sentences who wants pancakes? and what is this pancake to you?
I find a unique alchemy in this book: a deep sadness combined with a broad humor, and most of all a sense that I'm being allowed to see a poet watching himself in the midst of evolving, captured in motion like a series of time-lapse photographs. Here is the complete last poem in Rough Day:
At the western outfitters the clerk shows me a photo of the musk ox he dropped near Kotzebue his rifle a delicate woodwind the car coat he sells is too much blue as a bureau handsome checkers and closed squares wool rooms that would keep me warm all century instead I set forehead hot against the window and watch spring's first goose land in the field the city set aside soon the vista will be down and to the south a gosling nothingness my migrant eye already fevers
So Ed Skoog rustles about in a self-conscious fever, preparing himself for an inevitable personal and perhaps poetic migration. I look forward to his continued travels. I know he will not follow the herd.