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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Guest Review: Shields On Skloot

Andrew Shields reviews
The Snow's Music
by Floyd Skloot

Many of Floyd Skloot's poems about artists address moments when their brains are still creating in a way they cannot physically keep up with. In "John Field in Russia, 1835," for example, Field "has come back to die where darkness lasts," but his mind is still generating melodies—rather, his body is, as he learns when he sits down at the piano:

His hands move before
his mind knows the opening theme.

Thus do the body's long-ingrained practices provide an outlet for the brain's productivity even without the active knowing of the mind.

There is a whole section of such poems in Skloot's latest collection, The Snow's Music, including poems on Georges Braque, Paul Signac, Claude Monet, and Claude Debussy, as well as a comic turn on George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers playing badminton on the beach. (In Skloot's 2007 Selected Poems: 1970-2005, published by Tupelo Press, there are also poems on, among others, Walt Whitman, Maurice Ravel, Flannery O'Connor, and "Brahms in Delirium.") Poems like these are common enough that it would be easy to put together an anthology of them—and Skloot's work in this mode would fully deserve to be included in it. But his most unusual poems about historical figures are in a mode unique to him: poems about his hallucinations of visits from such figures to him in rural Oregon.

The Snow's Music contains two such poems, one on "Ezra Pound in a Spring Storm" and the other on "Thomas Hardy at the Harvest Supper," which begins with Skloot, not Hardy, in a moment of anticipation like that of Field at the piano: "I know before I wake that something's wrong." After a week reading about Hardy, Skloot writes:

I went
to sleep in Oregon and woke somewhere
in Dorset.

After a vision of Hardy playing fiddle at the harvest supper, Skloot arrives at an epiphany:

Art and life were transformed into dream,
and the dream absorbed time and place.

But Skloot's visions of other writers are not always epiphanic, marked as they are by their cause: the medication he takes because he lives with brain damage caused by a virus in 1989. Field's anticipatory knowledge marked how his body "knew" the music before his mind did; Skloot's anticipation, in the Hardy poem, marks not a creative power but a pre-rational sense, coloring the whole poem, that "something is wrong."

Skloot's Selected Poems contains quite a few hallucinatory visits from historical figures: Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Gauguin, among others. One poem even describes "Reese in Evening Shadow"—that being Pee Wee Reese of Skloot's childhood baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Here, Skloot highlights the source of the visionary moment:

Nursing the day's final herbal
concoction against joint pain
and lost sleep, the same drink
I have used all twelve years
of my illness, I tilt my head back
in its battered Dodgers cap to rest
against the slats of an Adirondack chair

as a screech owl's solo whistle
pierces the endless crescendo
of bullfrogs and bumble bees

when Reese at last drifts back out
of evening shadows.

These visions always arrive quietly, in a combination of Skloot's perception of the world through his condition, a vividly described natural scene (often mentioned in the titles, such as "Rasputin in Darkness" or "Nabokov, Mist"), and the quiet, often hard-to-perceive appearance of the figure in question.

The combination of these two types of poems is one of the primary ways Skloot addresses his brain damage in his poems, but there are more direct poems as well, such as "First Steps" in The Snow's Music:

After fifteen years
my first steps
without a cane
are quick and stiff.

Here, too, Skloot turns the poem toward the issue of knowing, as he discusses how he had merely forgotten his cane:

Maybe I did plan this but did
not know. Which would be consistent not only with Freudian interpretation
but with brain damage as well.

Skloot decides to go ahead and try to walk without the cane because his illness has taught him that "the body / knows things the mind does not."

That line connects Skloot's direct discussion of his brain damage to the ways he circles around it in his poems about historical figures. He also pursues issues of knowing in his Hamlet essay "Jangled Bells" (in his 2004 memoir In the Shadow of Memory, published by Nebraska), where he compares Hamlet's problems to his own: "Our problem, me and Hamlet, is how to know, how to be sure of our powers of reason. ... I quickly reach the limits of what I know, stranded [in the downstairs hall] without a sure sense of direction. The more I ponder, the more confused I get." Skloot goes on to relate the problem of knowing to an uncertainty about what to do: "Not knowing how to think means not knowing how to act." In this discussion of "not knowing," he then returns to the theme I have identified in his poems: "I have gradually learned ... that a part of me knows what my brain does not." All this reflection on knowledge, action, Hamlet, and his own condition inevitably leads Skloot to the "to be or not to be" soliloquy, and he concludes that "the real question at the heart" of that speech is "how to be, how to live, especially when you find yourself at the end of your ability to know." Again and again, the problem is "how": how to function in an impossible situation.

In Skloot's poems, the theater provides an answer to that question: on stage, one knows how to act, as in "Playing the Bawd at Twenty," a poem about playing Pompey in Measure for Measure:

For two hours
each night I knew what to say about right
and wrong in a world gone wild with deceit.

"I knew what to say": for the twenty-year-old who is afraid of not knowing what to say, this is surely the attraction of acting, where you can play someone so much more sure of himself than you really are. Skloot's biography adds another layer to the poem: because of his brain damage, the man here remembering his youthful self's elation is often unable to say the right thing.

For Skloot, then, incompleteness—of self, of mind, of knowledge—is not just a recurring theme but a daily battle with the limitations of his condition. This makes the epiphanies poets aim all the more hard-won in his work. And even when epiphany does arrive, as in the vision of harmony in "A Unified Field," what one knows about epiphanies becomes an issue:

Because the night is clear and cold,
because the moon is new, and Mars
so close it seems to be in bloom,
because his mind imagines room
for wonder, he sees everything hold
together a moment under the stars.
He knows it will not last ...

And the vision of harmony and balance concludes with a series of negations (a negative epistemology, as it were) in which one word ("less" instead of "else") opens up the poem into an acceptance of how never-ending Skloot's problem ("how to know"; "how to act") is:

There is nowhere else to go,
no one else to ask, and nothing less to do.

Andrew Shields is an American poet living in Switzerland.
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