on Selected Poems: 1970-2005, by Floyd Skloot (Tupelo Press)

Through a stroke of good fortune, I was in Portland, Oregon on April 20 when Paulann Petersen hosted an event to celebrate the publication of Floyd Skloot’s Selected Poems. I’ve written at length on Skloot’s poetry in a Prairie Schooner review of Approximately Paradise (Tupelo, 2005), click here but now find some additional things to say, occasioned by the Selected itself and the reading he gave in Portland.

floyd.jpgOne earlier point I made is that many readers think of Skloot as the writer who got sick. Skloot has abetted this identity by writing with such illumination, intelligence and humor about his illness and its effect on his cognition and memory. The Publisher’s Weekly squib on the Selected says his work is known “for quiet warmth and mellifluous rhymes … peculiarly hard-won clarities,” apparently because his creativity is a win over impairment. In this view, the sweetness and formal niceties are end-products of some offstage battle with infirmity. Extend this misreading and you get, “Skloot’s demotic language and his focus on pathos will remind some readers of William Stafford, others of Ted Kooser.” But if Stafford and Kooser converse with you, Skloot modestly declaims. You could never answer him in his language, which is neither demotic nor hieratic. The poetry is a dual-fueled hybrid: what feeds the machine is constriction and freedom, failure to express and desire to speak in the sublime, respect for the seen and fascination with the imagined. The language, on its surface so calm and evenly toned, is a balancing trick. Although maintaining equilibrium, a physical challenge in Skloot’s immediate past, is most probably related (like everything else in his life) to this mode of art, Skloot’s preferences and habits long antecede his disabilities.

SAGE

He loves to see the purple whorls of sage
in bloom, its knee-high woolly branches white
at noon, their stalked green leaves seeming to age
toward gray in the relentless summer light.

From his bed with its garden view he thinks
of bees that feed on sage to make a prized
honey, of sage juice for joint pain. He drinks
sage tea to prevent night sweats and to ease

his trembling, uses a wash of sage to soothe
sore gums and blacken graying hair. Nothing
helps, but he feels there is nothing to lose.
Burnt sage for the room, sage on scabs, smoking

sage cigarettes for his lungs, sage with roast
duck to cut the fat. He does not want to
live forever. What he wants is almost
more than he can say. A year, maybe two.

I can understand why one would say that Skloot has a “focus on pathos.” “Sage” depicts a pathetic situation. But pathos is of minor interest here. “Sage” is about an extendable solution even though “nothing helps.” One analog for sage is the poem’s applied form, a regimen of aural patterns that provides both shape and life to what is depicted. The man in the poem is like sage, “seeming to age / toward gray.” He loves to see sage in bloom; he loves to see himself with the prospect of continuing to live. Sage not only cuts the duck fat; it absorbs the undercurrent of desperation – and the drippings of pathos.

Listening to Skloot read, I heard the narrative threads running through the poems, and the seamlessness of the speeches, above the end-rhymes and metric patterns. For Skloot, formal solutions aren’t hurdles he puts in his way to prove he can leap. They act more like guarantors of sanity (meaning not rationality, since Skloot often entertains the irrational, but recognition).

“By the age of twenty-one, I not only had a brain wired for over-response to stress, I had a brain damaged by its steady exposure to the neurochemicals associated with that response,” he wrote in “The Painstaking Historian,” an essay in his collection In the Shadow of Memory (Nebraska, 2003). Whatever drives this man to erect a healthy, balanced mythic self in his writing has little to do directly with the illness he contracted in late late 1980s. The illness provided a useful context (which Skloot has played out in poetry, essays, novels, and even book reviews). The deeper dynamics call out cannily from the poems.

Selected Poems: 1970-2005 represents work from Skloot’s five collections. The first, Music Appreciation, not published until 1994, was preceded by several chapbooks and years of magazine publication. Then The Evening Light (Story Line Press) and The Fiddler’s Trance (Bucknell) both appeared in 2001, because of a long delay in the publication of the former. Although The End of Dreams (LSU, 2006) includes work written before the poems in Approximately Paradise (Tupelo, 2005), it was accepted for publication by LSU in 2002.

THE FIDDLER’S TRANCE

The air above Vitebsk was filled with Jews
gassed green. From the synagogues and orchards,
rubble of butcher shops, from crushed forges,
charred barns, and wooden huts rose the blues
and blazing yellows of the world to come.
Red footprints racing nowhere across snow
were chased by spirals of dark fire that no
one saw in time. Every bird was struck dumb
by dawn. Chagall remembered the future
before ever leaving home. Yet he knew
song was possible. Whatever was true
about the sound of light, he would picture
one lonely fiddler looming and entranced
to find himself the center of a dance.

Art is recovery. Or for Skloot, the discovery that recovery is possible. He has re-wired himself to find thriving prototypes, assurances, hope. This is the sweet stuff. But it is triggered by something else that runs through – and informs the shape of -- this remarkable collection of poems. With Selected Poems, Floyd Skloot now finds himself, surprisingly, in the center of what often seemed impossible.

[Published April 2008, 158 pp., $21.50]