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Apr/May 2017 Reviews & Interviews

Scenes along Highway 24

Run the Red Lights
Ed Skoog.
Copper Canyon Press. 2016. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1556595035.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! Ed Skoog is two poets. One tries to forge word games of only the most limited rational sense. The other writes a poetry straight out of the MFA aesthetic during its high days: filled with rundown places he's lived and fellow rundown people he lived with in them. The two are about as different as poets get.

He has lived in more places than most people and speaks of moving where there is work and "a low threshold for boredom." The bars and eateries he mentions by name, in Run the Red Lights, would seem to be pretty nondescript. One exemplary place is in his hometown of Topeka, Kansas:

The travel placemat from before the interstate
recommends scenes along Highway 24
including Topeka's Ira Price Café
east of the cloverleaf.

Where he is when he reads the placemat is neither mentioned nor important. In fact, it is a very nice touch that we know it only by this one feature and it tells us everything we need to know. We've been there before.

Of course, a cloverleaf is rarely called a cloverleaf anymore. Just like the cassette tapes, Virginia Slim 100s, percolators, and karaoke scattered around in odd corners of Run the Red Lights, the term is metonymic at a level we don't always find in our poetry.

Drama is rare among such people and places. Somehow it always unfolds somewhere else. There was the story he was told of the time that his mother's purse was snatched. In the big city of New Orleans the drama occurred a block away, as close as such things tend to get:

Our son was one month old
and a block away when the shooter came
into the café with four endings, then caught
the bus downtown. I know his name
but won't give him the honor.

The "won't give him the honor," again, is precisely descriptive, though on this occasion it is not clear how much Skoog is aware of it.

Or the drama is uncertain as the possibility of the plummet of a free-climber up "the mountain's vertical faces... beautiful / calculations shooting through his hands," who the poet once picked up alongside the road, beside Mount Hyacinth. Or the fatigue that turns the patrons in a bar into uncanny faces from the past.

There are no great moments of wisdom, to speak of. There are occasional insights but they are of the garden variety.

young singers are so good
at sorrow you'd think they
knew something about it

The main character is the poet. One can easily imagine his mother saying that he was the thinker in the family—that he said the funniest things at times. "I longed to become more elaborate," he informs the reader, "my approaches too simple and still are."

There is happiness, yes, but nothing ever erupts into joy. There is never a "Mr. T... in a soiled undershirt / his hair standing out" suddenly executing a perfect entrechat. In this way Run the Red Lights is unusually disciplined. The people and places he writes about come alive in their small details.

I live very far away from myself.
When I lived in Topeka I had already left
yet I ride hometown, charioted by street-view
wings of Google. There's my father on his porch!
White puff of pipe smoke caught above his head,
a thought balloon, and his sister beside him
in her purple jacket with a black feathery collar
balancing the KANSAS STATE DEPARTMENT
OF GEOLOGY coffee mug on her knee.

The words that describe them are as artless and common as the lives themselves. They belong to all of us. The result is an unusually human poetry of the generally Midwestern, lower middle class.

At the edges a few poems more freely following the stream of consciousness push the envelope just a bit more, perhaps prepare the reader just a little bit to take off into those poems that will float almost unmoored of context and punctuation.

We might barely be available to negotiate
between the moon's missing grenade
and what's cropped up in the field

among dry stalks, a good stalking-to...

But, then, that's an entirely different poet.

 

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