Ed Skoog
Copper Canyon Press, $16 (paper)

The image on the cover of Ed Skoog’s new collection of poems, Rough Day, foregrounds a balance between the singular and the plural that the poems set in motion. In a prewar black-and-white photograph, a lanky girl (“tween” is the word) sits cross-legged and barefoot on a rough-hewn campstool in a patch of poor grass, a pet crow perched on her wrist. Framed by blunt bangs and a short bob—one of those haircuts adults think suitable for kids—she faces the camera, but her eyes go through it; underscored by dark rings, they have a thousand-yard stare that belies her age. The image is a clarion reminder of how private hardship is. That the girl is identified on the back cover as Skoog’s late mother portends the colloquial, familial, evocative style of his poems; that anyone can recognize the hardship on her face speaks to the inclusiveness of their claims.

That is not to suggest that Rough Day is a poetry of hardship, or otherwise engineered for emotional impact. It is not a lyrical poetry, if we take that term to mean an attempt at some union of private and public selves (the lyric’s historical task) or a performance of intimacy. Rough Day’s poetic genre is, happily, unclassifiable:

Let me try this clumsy again at dawn

casting knots that deform the current
concentric toward the zeppelin barn

not salmon but a kind of unemployment
I’m drawing
with three sides of the valley in my ear

my body a green overtone

how many nights within enormous hearing of the sea
how many exposures until I fail to comprehend

bramble against shoulder
catching thorn to rip flannel

each thought a rope to lash
a mattress on top of my car

Passages such as this support the impression, growing stronger by the day, that we live in a time when poetic categories are becoming irrelevant.

With each untitled poem indicated by a solitary capitalized letter, stanza and line breaks usually employed in lieu of punctuation, and articles and prepositions both in short supply, Rough Day is written in a muted and dexterous minimalism. Skoog uses that minimalism to elongate and fold perspective, sometimes to the point of slurred speech. The book’s experimentalism is not a style or stance, but a willingness to put poetry on trial that, as far as I can tell, goes all the way down. These pages are powered not by self-expression but by what we might call a lyric drive, an impulse that is not interior or maudlin but subjective, fluid, and changeable. Skoog’s collection is relentlessly changeable, even turbulent, almost protean. This is a poetry looking for a way to run away from itself.

Skoog's experimentalism is not a style or stance, but a willingness to put poetry on trial.

As a result it also sounds familiar, even uncanny, in the Freudian sense that we recognize the familiar within the unfamiliar. If the private and public, or singular and plural, are inextricably bound in these pages, it is because Skoog has Whitman’s ability (and more to the point, inclination) to substitute microcosms and macrocosms interchangeably, which contributes to these poems’ startlingly American qualities. Whitman’s strategy of exhortation and unification by substituting parts for the whole (“I resist anything better than my own diversity,” for instance, or “This minute that comes to me over the decillions, / There is no better than it and now”) was a death knell for the old Puritan typological metaphor, which understood the observable natural world (including all human experience) to be an iteration of archetypes found in biblical history. Rather than employ natural objects for moralization à la Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor or extoll Emerson’s “occult relation between man and vegetable,” Whitman moved American poetry away from those traditions by loudly witnessing the patent opacity of the physical world (that is, the whiteness of the whale).

This shift is one reason we think of Whitman as both an apotheosis of American Romanticism and a first instance of modernism. Skoog’s renewal of that strategy may also invoke a new American idiom, in a new era of crisis. We can agree that many days are at least a little rough, but reading Skoog’s poems can have the same effect on the reader that a cab driver’s stereo has on the poems:

his tape deck plays

some old piano music I like
trickling from return’s edge

a song about the desire upon release
from prison to win the good return

More than just a quick nod to the blues, this is a moment, like Whitman’s failed attempts at alchemy, of dearly bought calm in a dying republic. Pace Whitman, Skoog knits what might be irredeemable back into a broken corpus.

Rough Day employs a pastoral of alleys filled with compost and busted basketball hoops, of secondhand stores, inhuman hotels, and outdoor parties lit by burning recliners. It is a world that has

passed us by

except for antiques
college students smoking on a porch

These easy shifts in tense, capable of summoning a quick requiem for the present moment (and a reminder of the close affinity between the lyric and elegy), allow Skoog to work in a landscape that is worn and unjust without sounding nostalgic or bitter. In fact, Rough Day engenders one of the warmer voices in recent memory; one hears something almost like a gruff friendliness when the poems are read aloud. Old Yankee virtues—restrained defiance, private grief, laconic humor, spiritual restlessness—are renewed here, but more than anything else the sensibility is admirable for its complete lack of pretense.

That is not to say there are not problems and real anger in this setting; the second of the poem’s five sections opens with the thrust of a shiv:

elders argue in a bus stop crèche
one says to the other

I will not look at you

I will stab your
singing throat

In the world Rough Day offers us, these cowardly “elders” (who might be critics, poetics scholars, or some other kind of partisan) evince a threat. Their location—“a bus stop crèche”—is a savage irony: those who would ruin a “singing throat” might as well be magi or monks driven to violent insanity by their own ideologies. In a later moment that reads like a possibly gratuitous statement, an indictment and a warning appear:

Cottonwoods parse their shadows along the river

and one year to not break winter into leaf

so then say it was poetics that broke the singer’s throat
and wash my hands in the morning sprinkler
while nurses ride up Brooks on bright yellow bikes

this morning I am like a truck driver

who stops in the middle of the road
walks back to check the lock and rub

some dust from the turn light
let that red warning through

This new kind of lyric, this lyric drive, is not to be found in any kind of narrowly defined persona—the “I” that appears in this collection is consistently wide and inclusive—but rather in the subjective turn, in the swerve signaled by that “red warning.” The turn, as it were, drives the truck.

The turn is unrelenting. As soon as any attitude, tone, or idea asserts itself into the poem, Skoog cuts the legs out from under it and looks to a new one, fashioning a poetry that fluctuates and ripples as incessantly as open water. In one of Rough Day’s more haunting moments, Skoog starts with a day off work and ends up describing a mythic landscape at world’s end:

on Sunday I hunker down too

beside clean socks someone dropped by
among strange friends whose eyes

I recognize as more or less mine
I’ve halfway died

unless it slips apart in secret

abandoned gesture of infinite alphabet
dollars step into the yard fat as gas cans

and badgers sleep beneath their throats
and whales fall disused into their trench

This willingness to return to and walk away from the declarative urge, this ebb and flow of assertion, strikes me as humane. Skoog is willing to undermine and even invalidate his poetry, to ruin its “sensibility.” The result is a body of work in which the subject is literally de-scribed: a poetry that, by subverting and sabotaging itself, acknowledges the presence of the unspoken word.

If any identity or ideology can be found in Rough Day, it might be in its moving, eloquent waltz with silence:

What is silence for

wholly identical to itself
unless it find saltine night

or does it decide to belong
as if telephone wires were antlers
or an athletic portrait of calm

I was nothing coming into this name

Which is another way of saying, as Skoog does, “I am practicing that language of unfinishable sentences.” This cycle of admission and rejection—ingesting, synthesizing, and returning a world that merely but miraculously floats on plates—binds the poem together.

Rough Day is divided into five sections, and the arc they construct is a recognizably spiritual one. It is a contemporary spirituality, defined by proximity and mystery:

A mile outside of Yellowstone

loose sky fallen into bruise
I put down my hitchhiking sign

wait for dawn at a gas station
I work mink oil into my boots
and talk about early snows

sketch in ballpoint a stranger’s face

on the last page of a book of elegies
I have been carrying around

Here, body and book are mediated by the hand that sketches a stranger’s face, and here, via the book, the body is finally transformed into something we can unzip.

The last pages of Rough Day are a marvel. Skoog’s minimalism ruptures into simultaneously gentle, angry, and meditative lines, lines that could even be called vatic, if that is not too fancy a word for it. Whitman’s cosmos appears in kitsch:

From inside the secondhand store I admire

twenty amber ashtrays in the window
lacquer slathered on wooden lamps

hanging on to sun made ashtray-amber
by forest-fire smoke that has not cleared
the diminished sun replicated

on a thousand glosses glasses thimbles finishes

This passage inaugurates a quiet and unerring coda, where “not virgins but virginal we unravel at the mouth.” Rough Day’s conclusion coincides with the appearance of an infant, but the inclusion is not sentimental—far from it. The infant might even be an embodiment of the silence, and wordlessness, so prevalent in earlier pages. The book ends with the invasion, and the grace, of namelessness: the poetry that begins when one closes the book.

One of the many provocative and lovely tensions of Rough Day is the way in which a poetry that roves so far, and leaves so much behind, offers itself as a potential guide for how to stand still: “this short curriculum / with the sacked city we are always fleeing.” Rough Day widens our moment—difficult as it is—into something inhabitable, into somewhere we can live:

before the appetizers have even arrived
blind I did love the burn
swim out into gutter and glisten

that and the gas pumps and old billboard


that spring with the scarred hand
dog coming in from the rain


Photograph: namtaf