on Floyd Skloot's Approximately Paradise
Floyd Skloot has been writing and publishing poetry for thirty years, long enough to have become an intriguing example of how a poet comes into his own. But he is gaining notoriety at large as "the writer who got sick," an identity of convenience promulgated by reviewers of his essays on illness and loss of memory collected in In The Shadow of Memory and A World of Light. The poetry, too, has often made illness its subject since the early 1990s. But unlike the satisfactions of the essays, the pleasures of Skloot's poetry do not derive from entertaining insights into a timely subject. The pleasure comes from experiencing an evasion of doom through a careful regard of the world expressed through traditional forms. Skloot's considerations have always been thoughtful, but not particularly cerebral. He respects an actuality more than an idea. The persona, having already taken responsibility for itself, does not feel compelled to make the reader its custodian. Urgency makes way for the world, since the self in its reduced or troubled state cannot be relied on to play a title role. It is not that Skloot is modest in his voice or aims – it is that he reserves immodesty for calculated ends other than self-making.
He enrolled as a graduate student at Southern Illinois University in 1969 in order to study with the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, whose work up to that time had been taut and elegant. Skloot cultivated an early preference for leveraging form, withholding but not hiding emotion, with details of a palpable world in the foreground, the background darkening for the reader's speculation. "My Daughter Considers Her Body," the sonnet below, was written in 1977:
She examines her hand, fingers spread wide.
Seated, she bends over her crossed legs
to search for specks or scars and cannot hide
her awe when any mark is found. She begs
me to look, twisting before her mirror,
at some tiny bruise on her hucklebone.
Barely awake, she studies creases her
arm developed as she slept. She has grown
entranced with blemish, begun to know
her body's facility for being
flawed. She does not trust its will to grow
whole again, but may learn that too, freeing
herself to accept the body's deep thirst
for risk. Learning to touch her wounds comes first.
This poem appeared in Skloot's first major collection, Music Appreciation (1994). By then, he had been ill for six years with a viral disease targeting his brain and severely disabling him. Ultimately disavowing the formalism that attracted Skloot, Kinsella had once said to him, "I want to stop from being crippled by form." But in Skloot's poems, form would exact a revenge on loss by forcing it to change shape. Music Appreciation, collecting the best work of his first twenty years as a poet, featured poems of domesticity, nature, and memory – and his initial poems about the disruptions of illness. The intimate title poem finds a speaker stricken by "some virus my doctors say/ is deep but cannot name," and, "It's somber,/ but I'm learning to appreciate/ this new tone, the discordant sound/ that accompanies vital change." His attitude consistently has been accepting from the beginning of the setback, while preoccupied with representing states of disorientation that ultimately yield insight. (Even in the sonnet above, the daughter is "barely awake.") For Skloot, learning to touch his own wounds comes first – his main story, even before the illness. In his new book, Approximately Paradise, the rules of his poetry take precedence over the accidents of his life, and find a route from threat to sustenance. But the intensity of such controlled tone and form also suggests a potential loss of equilibrium, an underlying dread.
In many ways, Approximately Paradise continues the interests and approaches of his last book, The Fiddlers Trance (2001). There, he concluded the poem "December Dawn" with "But still, I have never felt so strongly/ before that the world has become nothing/ but an image of what is inside me./ I'll walk until the fog lifts or something." For some poets, self-tentativeness is a pollution from graduate studies in postmodernist theory, a brooding vagueness, a mistrust of the power of the text. For Skloot, it is based on a physical sensation rendered through perception and description. In the new book's first poem, "The Role of a Lifetime," a roughed-up pentameter with linked rhymes, a man considers his role as Lear and the displeasing oddity of portraying age-induced dementia with wit: "But not play a wayward mind! Be cut/ to the brains, strange to himself, his entire/ soul wrenched free, then remembering his lines but/ act forgetting. Understand pure nonsense/ well enough to make no sense when saying/ it..." There is an implied ars poetica here, a refusal to settle for mere suggestiveness or to use disjointed effects for imitation of a state of confusion. This Lear, fearful of his own lapses, "could not bring/ himself to speak the plain and awful line/ that shows the man within the shattered king:/ I fear I am not in my perfect mind." "My mind's not right" wrote Robert Lowell in "Skunk Hour." Skloot's temperament will not permit such a statement (and besides, he usually speaks of loss of function, not madness). But he does start from what's gone awry; it is his overt wish for (and enactments of) affirmative destinations that is not Lowellish. Still, Skloot's mythic self does not confuse the desire for peaceful vision and musicality with a certainty of its ultimate arrival. These are poems about – and behaving as – moments of passing clarity.
A typical Skloot maneuver is to narrate a drift from waking to wakefulness, from dream to awareness and back. In the book's first section, there are poems about famous artists in turmoil, all attempting to hear a private music: Gauguin (presented as a ghost in a waking landscape), Carson McCullers, Brahms, Couperin. The narration of "Gauguin in Oregon" is hallucinatory, but the loss of mental acuity is not expressed through stagy images of the unexpected or broken syntax. From "Brahms in Delirium": "He knows he is out of his mind. He hears/ the swift percussion of his racing heart/ and feels it carry him toward what he fears/ most, the end of all his music, the start//of everlasting silence..." These poems are juxtaposed with shorter pieces showing the natural or personal world, such as "Soft Flame," a sonnet describing a dream. Skloot's dreamscapes display his immodesty: how far can he stretch credulity in a visionary conceit? He does not seem to care. This strange voice expects us to take these sentimental visions literally.
The second section begins with another performance poem, "Dress Rehearsal," where once again the player "must project ease" and wit (yet not necessarily be at ease or feel witty). But forgetting his lines in rehearsal, he exits "lost in a soft, rapturous sorrow/ where nothing moves and nothing is certain." The poem, however, is not lost but recovered from confusion, and its sorrow is muted; it is built deliberately to help us deliberate: five quatrains with linked rhymes, maintaining a firm shape for a frantic experience. Skloot has but one poetic impulse: to clean up the disorder of the mind.
Like Yeats, having found his mask and cause, Skloot is stubborn about the sole message he is willing to hear, namely that life is going to be possible after all, even after losing everything. Approximately Paradise has several tales about the fear of failure at performance and the degradation of artistic skills, such as "The Keyboard Trial," a narrative about a faltering Scarlatti called to compete against his hero, Handel. The figure of the flagging artist deepens its effects with "John Constable At Sixty, London, 1837," a forty-one-line unrhymed poem in a loose tetrameter. Here, the artist does not simply lose his facility, but senses something entirely new and elemental to paint in his old world: "If he could/ paint what he has come to know of it,/ he would leave out the high blues,/ leave out the watery violet that daylight/ makes of a late winter afternoon/ and the sea's azure embrace on clear/ summer days... //He would turn to reds/ for their tint of certain loss on a day/ otherwise full of promise." This latter is Skloot's keynote: promise and loss existing in a hard-won balance. The descent into a loss of vision is, for Skloot, an opportunity for vision, a place to make his stand. In "Home Repairs," all of Skloot's talents and tendencies coalesce into a signature poem through measured detail and tightly controlled tone:
The summer he wallpapered his daughter's
bedroom, rain finally buckled the back deck
and sluiced the loose roof shingles free to
flutter off on a gust of wind. He knew
what was happening before his eyes, how water
goes for what holds an old house together
and tears it apart from the outside in.
So does the sun. A week of record heat
seemed to draw the house in upon itself
as he steamed, peeled and scraped through sheet
after sheet of tulips, roses, toy soldiers
and prancing horses. He could hear the thin
cry joists make as they dry. He worked by himself,
a storm of plaster around his shoulders,
the air thick with mold and age, nothing left
to mark the past but bare wall, a tapestry
of cracks, and a door that would not stay closed.
The book's middle section is comprised of poems about his mother's Alzheimer's illness. The final section locates the speaker and reader in a landscape close to home, or what has become a resting place at the end of an ordeal. Another poem of imagined presence, "Patrick Kavanagh At First Light," repeats the Gauguin gestures, with the added element of a small closure: "So I have gone/ nowhere after all, and realize I have been talking/ to myself. Except there is Kavanagh again... " Two poems sparkle here at the end. The first, "Amity Hills," is a lilting nature narrative, Wordsworthian in its contemplation, and quietly epiphanic: "Time here has drawn me out beyond strangeness. Or drawn me in./ I have learned that surprise/ is not always shock and nothing to fear." The second, "Reese in Evening Shadow," a reminiscence of the Brooklyn Dodgers' shortstop: "the whisper of the wind is his voice/ saying it will be all right, pain is nothing,/ stability is overrated, drugs play havoc/ with your game, lost sleep only means/ waking dreams, and illness is but a high/ pop fly that pulls us into shadow." For the first-person persona and the portrayed figures, disorientation and fear come from fatigue, or are induced by meds, or result from brain damage. In poem after poem, Approximately Paradise is finally about the victory of memory over unimaginable emptiness, and of form over formlessness.
It has been said that poets grow by recoiling from their early themes, but this does not seem to pertain to Floyd Skloot. Technically and vocally, he has always been a poet of social decorum, meaning he takes the writer-reader relationship seriously, and actually seeks to relieve the pressures that strain this relation. This uncommon strategy is risky, insofar as it ignores some registers of subtlety in favor of more obvious sentiment. Thematically, he has always spoken of the primacy of loss, and the necessity of maintaining a responding posture of calm, saving regard. The antidote to loss has entailed a submission to the concrete – without the comforts of concrete certainties. Skloot has written that since he got sick "the writing of poetry has become much more open for me. The poems are less formal, less cohesive, because my world and my mind are less cohesive." But the openness is relative. Skloot continues to be a highly disciplined poet, confronting chaos to capture and tame this enemy. There is ferocity living in his forms, coexisting with the sweetness of vanquishing sentiment.
[published in Prairie Schooner,, spring 2006]