We don’t give much thought to the covers of the poetry books we read, but the genre is plagued by amateurish typography and ill-chosen imagery. Copper Canyon Press consistently has some of the strongest, most thoughtful designs, and Ed Skoog’s Rough Day is the perfect marriage of style and substance.
A 1939 photograph of Skoog’s mother, looking rather displeased with a pet crow on her lap, graces the cover of Skoog’s second collection. It’s an intentional choice, and also a memorable one.
“The book is about a lot of things, and one is trying to reconstruct a sense of self after loss,” Skoog explains to Lillian Nickerson in an interview with City Arts. “For me that’s the passing of my mother almost 10 years ago. How to rebuild the world after rupture.”
The image of the crow is also significant:
One of the effects of being in an uncertain world is restlessness. There’s a thing called zugunruhe. It’s a German word to describe the restlessness of animals before their migrations—the itchiness to get going, the behaviors before leaving. Birds exhibit it; everything that migrates tends to behave a little differently right before taking off on what might be an enormous or fatal journey. So having a crow on the cover, a pet crow, calmly sitting on my mom’s lap seemed to fit. I feel that restlessness. I feel it as a human who travels from place to place. I don’t really feel like I have a home. I have a lot of different places where I belong at certain times. That fugitive nature is something very central to the nature of poetry and poetic language.
Skoog spent a year in Washington D.C. and wrote many of the poems during regular walks around the city. “The historical marker is a form of guilt / backward meaning / that might pull a muscle in your neck,” Skoog writes in one poem. He could be referring to a city like D.C., or for any other city for that matter.
Rough Day is a book steeped in place, but not in the ways you might expect. “I had a lot of rules for myself,” Skoog says. “I try not to name places—I didn’t want to locate the book geographically. I didn’t want to locate it interpersonally. And so even though the book is very much about place and people and love and loss, I didn’t want to fall into the familiar way of talking about those. I tried to make it fun. I also tried to make it funny. If a line wasn’t in some way funny, I threw it out.”
While reading Rough Day, we are everywhere and nowhere—steeped in reality, but also outside of it. The poems in the collection are both specific and general, comforting and strange. They make us feel simultaneously unmoored and rooted:
Gulliver attends his narrative on the mantel
painted on a delicate decanter
the box fan is plugged in but does not move
we ate deer and lemons in those days
we didn’t love and became the past
salmon are moving towards extinction
my chair is from Sweden
But the originality of Skoog’s voice is also glimpsed in his thrilling style, which eschews both punctuation and titles. The lack of punctuation causes us to slow down, to reconsider how the words fit together—or don’t. Phrases and words stand out in ways they wouldn’t with conventional punctuation, and each poem is given room to breathe and becomes more open-ended without a reductive title attached. Skoog spins together scenes, feelings, and ideas that are familiar, but the juxtaposition of words and images (combined with the lack of punctuation) makes these poems both surprising and unconventional.
Here is Skoog in his interview with Nickerson:
I believe poems begin long before they’re written. They’re sort of embedded in the possibility of language. The poems we write in some ways exist even before the English language, before the specific language that we’re using, before words even. The possibility inherent in the poem is this massive force that animates the poem, that exists before and after the poem. So I don’t feel like they have a beginning. And, as a result, they don’t really have an ending…
Part of what makes language fun is the suspense of what’s going to be said before that final period that makes us consider the whole sentence as a unit. There’s that state of waiting—a suspension we’re in until the end of the sentence—that carries so much possibility and eternity in it. That moves me intellectually. Especially the best sentences: “I love you because…” “We’re going to unplug this respirator because…” A sentence is a living thing and that’s the medium that we work in as poets. When I think of sentences, I don’t just think about grammar and copyediting. I think of the medium in which we prove we’re living.
In Paul Constant’s review of Rough Day he writes, “It’s a poem as broad as the country, as wide as a life, and as slender as a single line of thought,” an apt description of Skoog’s masterful second collection if I ever heard one.
Here are five poems from Ed Skoog’s Rough Day to kick off your Sunday.
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 the early snows
sketch in ballpoint a stranger’s face
on the last page of the book of elegies
I have been carrying around
I’m trying to find where influence end
a force emigrant in spirit
forget the old language
silent and defeated
to see the original inquiry was too small
a child passes into an empty house
passing into uncertain encounter
what will save me is the taste of miles
dirty under midnight’s skillet
the west has helped me listen to myself
the west is a place that kills and kills and kills
Meanwhile I am preparing
a way to miss the exiting animal
grizzly bear whooping crane
the slow hesitant and administrative desert tortoise
that I will probably outlive or my son will
already I see that my death
will or will not be like extinction
if only in the sense
that there was some noise and then there was no noise
yet why when I am grieving
do I insist the dead are inexact
without specifying how
extinction the bad trophy
and this is a good knot for holding a horse
and this is the desert’s smell after a good rain
and here is the canyon where we stop for love
and these are the red and orange seeds of the ocotillo
and these are the spines of the pencil cholla
and here is the debris and here is the rain
and here is how to live with almost nothing
and beyond, even as the rattlesnake
takes its shade from my long standing
even as the tarantula goes to the highway
at sunset and is not struck
From inside the secondhand store I admire
twenty amber ashtrays in the window
lacquer slathered on wooden lamps
all 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
over the weekend a local man dies
traversing the window of a house he’s trying to rob
on Mars the device continues to crawl
ash is falling from distant fires
north of town a man dressed as
Bigfoot is struck and killed
he’s doing it for us
those who want to stay a little bit asleep
lean against pine until hillside forget
the airport’s new luggage carousel
goes round like the rapids the city put
beneath the bridge to stimulate kayaking
and give mountain trolls
a riffle to wash their knuckles in
I am only dressed as a troll
although I don’t remember
putting the heavy costume on
and can’t find the zipper to take it off
not even the pimpled nose
or the one big tooth like the pawn ticket
a stranger gave me at the bus station
and I will someday get around to exchanging
when I have taken care of everything else
every other matter
The old man we pick up in Browning
coughs diesel and range
snow blocks us from fishing the reservoir
wiper blade waving as if to flag us down
a dog pisses on my tackle box at the Conoco
the guide who leads us here catches
fish like a covenant he’s entered into
such mastery save me it doesn’t him
halfway up another river the Lostine
trout lacquer over calico stone
early sparrow calls us together
into the tent which I zip up in one motion
yearling sets deer-heel
down in payment on flattest moss
like any river its job is to take away
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
About Ed SkoogEd Skoog was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1971. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Mister Skylight and Rough Day, both published by Copper Canyon Press.
He has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Lannan Foundation, Richard Hugo House, and the Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington Fellowship at George Washington University.
He co-hosts, with novelist J. Robert Lennon, the podcast Lunch Box, With Ed and John.
Skoog also coordinates the Idyllwild Summer Poetry Week, which will be held from July 7-11 in 2014. Teachers include Skoog, Natalie Diaz, and Michael Dickman.
For more information about Ed Skoog and his work, please visit his website.
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All poems © Ed Skoog. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Rough Day (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) and were reprinted with permission from the author and Copper Canyon Press. To learn more about Copper Canyon Press, please visit their website.