A Beautiful Map
Walking Across America with Ed Skoog
Hugo House felt especially inviting last Thursday for the launch party of Ed Skoog's new book, Rough Day. A band played bluegrass music, people milled about and picked at a deli tray, and there was a whole lot of hugging and drinking and laughter. When Skoog finally got behind the podium, he lavished the crowd with wave after wave of thanks, all bestowed in his warm voice, which makes everything he says sound like a gift given to a trusted friend in confidence.
Skoog thanked Christine Deavel and John Marshall, the proprietors of Open Books, recalling that when he "came to Seattle after graduate school and started learning things... more of my education came from Open Books than anything else." He told a story about a friend who "did a lot of public pissing. That's what he was known for, was peeing." He thanked his friends for reading copies of Rough Day in its unfinished forms: "I love that they have not told me that they defaced it with flame or water," Skoog said, but he admitted to surprise when friends "said it made them feel sad."
Rough Day, Skoog said, "is a document of joy," though he acknowledged that it was wrapped in a slightly gloomy package. The cover photograph, of Skoog's mother as a child, frowning at the camera with her pet crow in her lap, did make the book look a little gothy, he suggested, and the title sounds troubling, but he intended the "Rough" to simultaneously mean "difficult" but also "unfinished," as in a sketch. If it helped to lighten the mood, Skoog suggested, readers could pencil a smile or a little mustache onto the cover, but he warned the audience not to take the defacements too far: "This is my mother, after all."
In between poems, Skoog explained his intentions for Rough Day: It's "all about music," from the "rugged mandolin playing of Bill Monroe" to "New Orleans piano." The book spans Skoog's time in New Orleans and Seattle, and a year spent taking long walks around Washington, DC, and ultimately, he said, "this is a book that travels a lot."
That's the first thing that strikes you about the segmented, book-length poem that makes up Rough Day: It flits from place to place, from warm marshes to burning prairies to canals, taking a stroll across the country, hanging around highway off-ramps and bus stops, and "walking late at night/past the White House." It's a poem as broad as the country, as wide as a life, and as slender as a single line of thought.
Skoog's perambulatory pace gives him the time to focus on the details. Just before he sets out from graduate school for Seattle, he watches an abandoned hospital on his college campus being torn down: "I watch brick tumble/what has already become dust in me." He considers where he's been with that same impassive traveler's eye for detail: "my brother is an orange/crate of records/on a car hood/playlists for silences ahead/my father is a plaid armchair that smokes." To call Rough Day a map is too limiting—most maps are constructed of two flat axes, while this book is shot through the middle with a spray of arrows marking geography and time and loss and hope—but "map" is still the most accurate word I have for it.
And there is great joy in Rough Day, intimations of delicious seafood at out-of-the-way restaurants and a tourist's unabashed awe at walking in and around monuments in Washington, DC. But get a load of this:
gun I counseled all year in my Army-Navy coat
cold water against my temple black night
pointed at the frenzy mute: whatever it thought
it never spoke its six bullets
soft ducklings behind their mother
That's some kind of audaciousness, right there: an oily black admission of desperation of the sort that would make Sylvia Plath blush, followed immediately by the image of bullets like baby ducks all in a row. It's such a surprisingly adorable, out-of-nowhere comparison that your eye catches on it and lingers in admiration. But then you take a breath and you have to wonder who the mother is in this scenario.
Is Skoog picturing his brain as the leader of this ballistic Make Way for Ducklings parade, an instrument of velocity and death? Or is the mother duck absent, the way Skoog's family is represented by their absence in the poems, as a collection of things left scattered on the ground after an accident? The overt answers in the text, as Skoog said in his own impossibly friendly voice, have been filed away. But he only filed them away so more important answers can come shining through the spaces he left. It's such a beautiful sight that you won't want to shield your eyes.