When Bob Hicok’s essay, “The Promise of American Poetry,” was published in Utne Reader last summer, reactions from the American poetry community were, justifiably, disapproving, each quick to point out the generalizations stipulated in such a long-winded reflection of a “dying” category of poets. Although Hicok’s central thesis argues that authors of diverse background should have a majority of seats at a table that has historically been crowded with white writers, it argues so in a way that reads as though this inclusion is a fad, something presses are leaning toward because that is what is selling at the moment. In a capitalist system, the desire for profit inevitably drives many decisions, but it doesn’t exist apart from the society it’s operating in, and the social changes and social progress influence how those decisions are made. Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019) was selected as a winner of the National Poetry Series not because it helped hit a quota on some organization or press’ list, but because the collection merits the literary world’s recognition, because poetry such as Skeet’s reminds us that moments of beauty can exist in the face of erasure and violence, and that these experiences can teach us to be better humans.
Immediately, the collection reveals the violence of Drunktown, a place the Diné speaker cannot escape, forced to observe it more intimately each day:
Here, men hide their sexual desires, make decisions like athletes, and their intimacy with their family is rarely, if at all, on display. Despite indifference, the speaker has adapted to his surroundings in a manner similar to these men. Like his father, “[he] come[s] upon death / staggering into the house with beer on the breath.” It might take a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to shape them into an image they never intended for themselves.
It should be noted that the white space of the page is important to the content and essence of every poem. Obviously, white space is supposed to create moments of pause and tension between lines and stanzas. But Skeets’s utilization of it heavily emphasizes the overall emptiness (on both a literal and figurative level) that saturates the speaker’s environment. This is exemplified in “Truck Effigy.” The poem might be elusive, shying away from any concrete sense of narrative and groundedness, but the lines and the space that surrounds the lines heightens the desolation we too, as readers, experience:
The man, who could be any man mentioned in this collection, is essentially becoming one with the truck (as men so often become when they define themselves through their vehicles), and the white space helps to show not only this meshing and intimacy of object and man, but the distance that has been created from the world. The man has returned to “smolder,” and we are there to witness the disintegration of a body on a landscape it now must fully inhabit.
There are other moments where this white space is deliberately more apparent. “In the Fields” (the third poem in the collection that shares this title) reveals the landscape that is scavenged, erased of what little life it already had:
Perhaps the speakers presented earlier in the collection are spectators here. Perhaps they’re already a part of the remains scattered throughout (if not physically, then at least spiritually). Whatever the case may be, we are now privy to this purgatorial atmosphere, to this appendix of life we can only hope to empathize with.
Although there are many moments that might be beyond comprehension, there are plenty where Skeets pulls back the curtain of complex relationships—mainly those that must be hidden from society at large. In “Afterparty,” the speaker details his intimacy with another man and the danger such bodies this close together are, for the speaker, capable of exhibiting:
Cheap alcohol might be coursing through the speaker and his companion, but that doesn’t soften the force their bodies are about to enact on each other. As the speaker claims in “Love Poem,” “Desire is criminal,” and because violence is always present, there is a risk of losing oneself in such immersion. This risk is detailed in “How to Become the Moon”:
For the speaker and his lover, the possibility of not rising to the surface (being who the world expects you to be) is real, and can have consequences they are not ready for. Staying afloat is one thing, but swimming the ocean of intimacy and love has the tendency to pull us under. Yes, as the speaker claims toward the end of the collection, “this town will kill you,” but what village, town, or city isn’t doing that to us already? What landscape doesn’t already constrain and enact its indifference on our minds and bodies? Skeets confronts the realities of an environment that, in all its hostility, isn’t immune to allowing its inhabitants glimpses of greater recognition and understanding. It is indeed “such a terrible beauty to find ourselves beneath things / such a terrible beauty to witness men ripen,” and even if this paradox is all we are left with, it deserves to be remembered. We cannot exhume all the world has buried, but if we search the labyrinths of the present and past, we will no doubt find the moments where “We can be beautiful again.”
Poem excerpts courtesy of Milkweed Editions.