Review by Paige Welsh
Jake Skeets’ debut poetry collection, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, may remind readers of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as one image slips into another, but Skeets plunges deeper. From the first poem, “Drunktown,” the speaker alerts us to the of sound and space of text on a page:
“Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp.
In between the letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds,
a tractor tire backing over a man’s skull.”
Skeets atomizes written language into its raw materials, the very shapes of the marks on the page, and then reassembles them into a liminal space where he wrenches Diné identity, masculinity, queerness, and the legacy of colonialism against each other. Published in 2019 by Milkweed Editions, Kathy Fagan selected Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers as a winner of the National Poetry Series. The recognition is deserved. Skeets’ collection is a marvelous study of the boundaries of textuality.
For those unfamiliar, “Drunktown” is a moniker for Gallup, New Mexico, also known in the headlines as “Indian Eden,” and “The Indian Capital of the World.” Gallup thrives on the business of Native people from the bordering Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni while also killing them with disturbing regularity through police brutality, exposure, and other unnatural forces. Skeets never calls the landscape of his collection, Gallup. Instead, he draws on all its adjacent names to set the text in a gauzier space, somewhere between place and language, where he can weave the landscape in and out of other narrative elements.
Diné men metamorphose through boyhood, adolescence, and manhood, with Drunktown’s sorrel, coal, and bottle caps until they are obliterated, viscera flung over the fields. The text of the poem “Drunktown” sits wide on the pages, landscape-like, leaving white space above and below until the seventh stanza, where colors oscillate back and forth across the page in the gradient of a sunset or sunrise. Skeets ends the poem with,
“An owl had a skeleton of three letters
o twists into l
the burrowing owl burrows
under dead cactus
feathers fall on horseweed
and skull bone blown open.”
The attention to shapes of letters themselves in the word “owl” speaks to a visual command of language that Skeets carries through the collection. When the poem “In the Fields” scatters the very letters of “crow” and “letters,” the reader sees the book, the physical object itself, is a participant in the transformations.
Skeets uses his awareness of language as a signifier and to crack it open for his own purposes. In these openings, he invites readers to consider the polysemy of all units of language from metaphor, to words, to letters. In the poem “Comma,” people even metamorphose in and out of the small eponymous piece punctuation.
“The comma is a heart murmur, tremor in hamstring. His is an almost; someone calling in time about the man staggering out of American Bar into traffic—mouths gasping into headlight.”
The italicized “almost” feels representative of the fleeting transformations. No form is stable or consummated. The shape-shifting can be sensuous in poems like “Swallowing Kept Secrets:”
“He mouths oxeye and antelope sage. Pinioned,
he removes his shirt again to unveil wood rose.
and feather cindered black. He calls for the fires
as he undresses into nightjars.”
and then disturbing such as in the collection’s eponymous poem “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers:”
“ intestines blown into dropseed
strewn buffalograss blood clots
eyes bottle dark
mouth stuffed with cholla flower”
Images like “a mouth stuffed with cholla flower” carry the reader. Just as we are gutted, Skeets makes the landscape bloom once again.
The collection feels like a network of veins where the images pulse in and out of each other. Yet amongst the poems’ fluidity are harsh consonant sounds. Poems like “Truck Effigy” and “Drifter” blow across the page with the harshness of wind carrying bits of glass.
At a macro scale, Skeets reappropriates the discourse around Native peoples’ relationships with alcoholism, violence, and police brutality. In the collection’s notes, Skeets explains he derived the visual poem “Indian Capital of the World” from journalism about Gallup. An article by Nick Estes in Indian Country Today titled “‘Blood Money’: Life and Death in Gallup, NM,” stands out as an influence. Both the poem and the article list the unnatural causes of death for Native people in Gallup.
Holding the poem and article side by side, we see something is missing in the Indian Country Today article, not necessarily because of an oversight on Estes’ part but because of the narrow scope of journalistic reporting. If journalism is a snapshot of a landscape, Skeet’s poetry is a breathing depiction of the currents moving beneath.
“The Indian Capital of the World” does not abide by the supposed fixedness of text. It troubles the listed deaths by cramming the text together, to the point where words physically overlap, and then blows them apart, scattering words at the bottom of the page. The moves of the visual poem speak to Skeets’ metacognition of our capacity to process tragedy during the act of reading. The language of colonization falls to pieces as it tries to describe how it’s still reaping Native lives hundreds of years after the invasion. Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers reminds us why poetry is a medium separate from prose, research, and journalism. Through language’s deconstruction, perhaps we may reveal what it was designed to hide.
Paige Welsh is a dual candidate for an MA and MFA in English at Chapman University. Her creative undergraduate thesis on recontextualizing Moby Dick in a post-whaling world won the Chancellor’s Award at UC Santa Cruz. She lives in Orange, CA with her partner and their two cats.