by Floyd Skloot
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
Floyd Skloot is a profoundly talented man. His five books of poems, his literary essays and memoirs, and his fiction all speak to an immense skill. It is, then, with great joy that we can welcome Skloot's new Selected Poems: 1970-2005 to the world of books. Selected Poems is a brave, generous collection, an apt testimonial to three decades of intense commitment to the world through the medium of the written word.
At first glance, these poems are quiet and unassuming, barely whispering in a world of belligerent pyrotechnics. But, a close reading grants great rewards. Every word is attended to in Skloot's poetry, every phrase, every line. These poems are taut and vibrating, perfectly balanced. Nothing is superfluous, everything is intentional. Each of these poems is a gem, perfectly crafted and totally capturing both the reader's heart and mind. They attest to a difficult life well lived, and they chronicle that life -- and much more -- with grace and passion.
Skloot explores many realms in his work. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable is his focus on long-term illness. He's spent much of the last several years battling chronic illness himself, and this struggle -- the daily battle to overcome, even to survive, in the face of overwhelming odds -- comes understandably to the fore in his work. These poems are startling and fresh, heartbreaking and true, giving eloquent voice to areas in our lives that, for the most part, remain in the shadows.
The poems that speak most deeply to me, though, are those in which he brings historically important figures -- writers, painters, baseball players -- to life in various ways. In several poems, Skloot explores imagined moments in the lives of such figures as Van Gogh and Gershwin, O'Connor, and McCullers. One of the truly great poems in this book -- and there are many truly great poems -- recounts the experience of an aging and tired Walt Whitman at an impromptu ball game in 1861. It begins:
After six months of wandering Whitman found himself
at the edge of a Long Island potato farm in early fall.
He saw a squad of young men at sport on sparse grass.
Looking up, he saw a few stray geese rise and circle back
north as though confused by the sudden Indian summer,
then looked down to study cart tracks cut deep into mud.
Weary of his own company, shorn of appetite, he thought
it would be sweet to sit awhile beside this field and watch
the boys in their shabby flannel uniforms playing ball.
Skloot excels at capturing the fragments that make up a time, a place, a state of mind. Fully imagined and lustrous, they serve to bring to vivid and glaring life all of the richly textured and multi-layered facets of their subjects' realities.
Another variation on these historical and literary poems are those that bring the likes of Vladimir Nabokov or the last tsar of all the Russias, to him, to the poet himself, in his hilltop home in rural Oregon. He'll wake from medication-induced sleep, and notice movement in the near distance, a trick of light, the flight of a butterfly. And, soon, he is face to face with some person out of time, bigger than life, that he can only observe. A sterling example of this is his longish poem, "Eliot in the Afternoon," a quiet masterpiece. He writes:
...I sat in a cracked Adirondack chair under twin fir,
occupying the daily zone between analgesic doses,
watching bees traffic around wild rosemary
and saw out of the corner of my eye Eliot show
himself beside our slowly dying well.
he was pooled light that burst into flame
and became a flare of wind-blown leaves
as I turned to look.
Though this light was soaked
up at once by swaying oak and box elder, I had time
to think: You won't need that umbrella here.
These poems are infused with light, with the shifting shadow of leaves, with the scent of flowers, and the flight of deer. They resonate with beauty, and offer compelling insights into the humanity of both their author and of the imagined personage on which they dwell.
Skloot is nothing if not a humanist (with a small h), intensely sympathetic to the human plight. Does this come as a result of his struggles with his health? Or, as a result of the discipline of his writing? It really doesn't matter, in the end. Selected Poems is a book that speaks beautifully in a true voice, of the reality of human being, of the things we face, and of those we don't. And, it's always rewarding, as all good books of poems are, rich, and warm, and full of light.
Powell's employee Chris Faatz lives with his partner, kids, four cats, and two budgies in Portland.