“It may be evening, but it’s not yet night.”
By Joyce Peseroff, Contributing Editor
SUDDENLY, IT’S EVENING: SELECTED POEMS, John Skoyles (Carnegie Mellon, 2016). 112 pp. $16.95
INSIDE JOB, John Skoyles (Carnegie Mellon, 2016). 72 pp. $12.25.
John Skoyles has had a long career as a poet, memoirist, novelist, essayist, editor, and academic. The title of his selected poems, Suddenly, It’s Evening, has a valedictory sound. (Disclosure: he and I share a publisher, and I taught at Emerson College while he chaired the Writing, Literature and Publishing program. Editor’s Note: John Skoyles is also a contributing editor to the press.) Many poems in this collection feel elegiac, written in the voice of a man whose understanding of the world has left him sadder but wiser. He’s a poet of sorrows rather than griefs, and deep affection more than hot love. Among his subjects are family, marriage and divorce, friendship, illness and mortality, the perils and pleasures of a full glass of whiskey, and the neighborhoods in New York City and the outer Cape where he grew up and where he settled. Skoyles’s language is conversational and his tone often wry, seasoned now and then with a dash of surrealism. He builds his poems as carefully as a comic builds a joke, and ends each adroitly with a sharp, unexpected, yet thoroughly satisfying turn.
Robert Pinsky wrote in An Explanation of America:
For place, itself, is always a kind of motion,
A part of it artificial and preserved,
And a part born in a blur of loss and change —
All places in motion from where we thought they were.
Skoyles has been praised as a skillful observer of time and place. He creates a world in flux by pairing significant detail with a sense of things changing even as he names them. “Front Street” begins with “Neither of us had an easy winter” and describes the two pals’ view at low tide: “birdlife, dogs,/bits of clay or porcelain plate/and tourists taking the lazy way to town.” By spring, they’ve gone separate ways: “The tides don’t miss us/…/nor Gerald the cat/who we squirted with pistols/…/And Susan and Shelley, where are they?” Now you see it, now you don’t—and while the bay’s tides may not miss them, they still laugh at “two guys who fell/for their heroic example,/fatal to mortals,/of starting over and over again.”
“Midlife” begins with images of “uncles leaning over linguini/…/terriers, a garden with a patio/…/the stoop where you split your lip”—evocative childhood memories—and continues with “the street you rollerskated/on the arm of a priest,/now strewn with crack vials.” The fig tree “your grandmother posed against,/holding her summer cache of five fruits,” is “long-dead.” The present creeps over the past; life, and the memory of it, become a “growing and fraying/…ball made of rubber bands,” changing momentum like friends “who one by one/made…their names/which soon stood above them on a stone.” The poem is one long sentence, rolling its way from past to future amid the bounty and pinch of times and places always “in motion from where we thought they were.”
Skoyles is a master of pacing and tone. He’s the friend sitting across the bar whose confidential stories establish the intimacy of one soul sharing hard-won wisdom with another. His sense of language is playful, but he doesn’t rely on quirky enjambments to punch up his understated lines. In several poems, a poignant surrealism helps define the uncertain nature of his floating world.
In “Mop String,” a “stray inch of string/pushed from the mop” by a maid’s “exuberant sloshing” is the only object Skoyles can focus on during two weeks of hospitalization after brain surgery. It hides, first “pet-like,” and then like a “convict.” He grabs it for company as he’s discharged onto a bus, its “rows of bandaged passengers” pressing “their incisions/at each sharp turn.” Part charm, part transitional object, the string “seemed lost, not saved,/…unfurled along the lifeline/of my palm.” The pressure placed on one strand of matter as a stay against mortality yields a deep stab of pathos—as does the understanding that for two weeks, the patient’s sanity was preserved by a hair.
A pair of tadpoles brought home by a new girlfriend’s daughter in “Night After Night” looked “as if it hurt to grow” and “mouthed bubbles/that seemed to stand for words.” In a metaphor for the nascent relationship, the air surrounding “that jar of fronds,/sand, and half-formed things” gave off “a scent so much like death/you could mistake it for life.” The way we ponder events in retrospect, sometimes after a metamorphosis of regret, is parsed through the slightly surreal distortions of the jar.
It may be evening, but it’s not yet night. Published at the same time as his selected poems, Inside Job includes John Skoyles’ most recent work. The book includes the dry humor and familiar tropes of the writer’s earlier poems, but with a tightened focus, as if a camera’s lens were narrowed to close-up. Not all of Skoyles’s low-key lines earn their keep when the stakes are low; some in this collection elaborate little more than a clever anecdote. But in Skoyles’s best work, wit cuts deep into the business of staying alive.
The title poem begins with the startling assertion that “Suicide is an inside job,” both a wisecrack and an insight into its nature as a betrayal of the self. The poem jumps from a series of past connections—“a lifetime/turning doorknobs” and “saying good morning,/good night”—to the present estrangement of “those/bone alone/who mimic//the ultimate isolato,/ the bachelor best man.” Skoyles’s anti-epithalamion interrogates a broken relationship, asking “what wrongs/brought the years/of wound and salve,//crime and lab,/the hurt/and the nurse//whose hug/is a clamp.” A narrow ladder of three-line stanzas may walk him down from the ledge, but it’s to “a curtain,/a closet,/a room with no view.” The past can be questioned but not revised; in one beautifully made sentence, punctuated with the music of assonance and slant rhyme, Skoyles reckons the scope of what he has lost.
Both Suddenly, It’s Evening and Inside Job divulge a lifetime’s acquaintance with what can and cannot be restored. On one side is friendship, parenthood, family history, and roots that dig into nourishing soil. On the other is time and its attendant erosions. John Skoyles notes it all with compassion, modesty, and grace.
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