The Sunday Poem: Ed Skoog’s Rough Day

Writer Ed Skoog (Photo by Kelly O courtesy the author)

Writer Ed Skoog (Photo by Kelly O courtesy the author)

 

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.

 

Ed Skoog-Click to Purchase

 

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.

 

Writer Ed Skoog (Photo by Khaty Xiong courtesy the author)

Writer Ed Skoog (Photo by Khaty Xiong courtesy the author)

 

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 itThat 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 Skoog

Ed Skoog (Photo by J. Robert Lennon)

Ed Skoog (Photo by J. Robert Lennon)

Ed 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.
 
By | 2016-11-11T21:49:32+00:00 11.02.13|The Sunday Poem, Words|2 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

2 Comments

  1. Sigrun November 3, 2013 at 7:43 am

    Wonderful, thank you! Had to comment on this in my own blog. Such a great voice!

  2. Evie November 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Michelle, thanks for this post. This is a voice new to me, and I’m glad to be introduced! Thanks also for putting the Janet Cardiff exhibit on my radar. I realized as I read your write-up that I’d already visited it (or another one based on the same principle) at a different museum (and I can’t recall where!), but I’m delighted to have the chance to hear it again at the Cloisters. Hope all is well with you!

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