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An Act of Poetry

by Sarah Neilson
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

An Act of Poetry

Sarah Neilson
2 Snaps

T

he cover image of Jake Skeets’s debut poetry collection, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, has a poetry of its own. An indigenous Diné man stands against a stark white background, his hair slightly disheveled and his shirt half-tucked-in. Dollar bills are clasped in one of his hands. His eyes, as Skeets writes, are “bottle dark.” The portrait was taken by white photographer Richard Avedon in 1979. It is a picture of Skeets’s uncle Benson, who was stabbed to death less than a year later.

In an essay titled “Drifting: A Cover Image Story,” Skeets writes beautifully about the photograph and the poetry that grew from his experience of it. Avedon’s composition evokes colonization: he hung a giant sheet of paper upon a wall to create a white background and called the image Drifter. The composition literally whitewashes the man’s image; its title suggests a person who is unrooted, perhaps even unwelcome. In doing so, it reproduces centuries of settler-colonial representations of Native peoples as timeless, out of context, severed from their own culture—a representation that accompanied the colonial theft of Native land. Avedon profited from the image of this man, who quickly became a ghost. “It seems Navajo men are often drifters, drifting through the whiteness taped up by white men,” Skeets writes.

The poems in Eyes Bottle Dark reject the white background and the hollow image it presents. They pulse with beauty and blood, and their lines challenge ubiquitous colonial linguistic habits to reveal another way of creating meaning. In a recent interview with Frontier Poetry, Skeets says that “language is the root of poetry. I think American poetry needs to see the work of Diné poets and thinkers because our existence is an act of language and an act of poetry.” Accordingly, this collection turns the everyday acts and elements of Diné culture into the root from which its poems spring.

And the poems, they are beautiful. They embrace cracked syntax and staccato rhythm and enact imagery rather than merely representing it: the words themselves are dry tributaries, drowning lakes, weeds and flowers, shadow and light. They cascade and layer over one another to create painful, gaping omissions, white space. In “The Indian Capital of the World,” Skeets lists what could be a series of headlines, if they were ever reported as such: “man hit by train,” “woman found dead in arroyo.” As the poem progresses down the page, he weaves a visual tapestry with the repetition of the text “man found dead in a field,” which turns into “in the fields,” “among flowers,” “in the weeds.” The words and letters at the end of the poem are gradually superimposed, tangled like wildflowers, like broken grass stems, like a mess, like the crushed remains left by capital.

Skeets intertwines grammar and imagery in “Comma,” which turns a common linguistic tool into something visceral: “The comma is a heart murmur, tremor in hamstring. He is an almost… / He is headlights; two boys quickly push off each other. Commas dangling / like / belt buckles…” Here we see the theme of queerness, which blossoms throughout this collection as both a wonder and a brutality—there is violence in sex, too, even as it brings joy. Just as Skeets works the trap of colonial language, navigating the inherent violence of grammar in a way that might allow him to convey his experience, he navigates the minefield of sexual intimacy, in which the possibility of pain always lurks. Skeets manages to use the imagery of both, as in “commas dangling / like / belt buckles,” to illustrate this potential for pain and offer an alternative. In “How to Become the Moon,” he writes of a sexual encounter:

                              Your birthmark

will remind him of bruising, his

      father’s belt, broom,

branch across his face. He will see        

      his past in the whorl

                    of your hair

as you go down on him. He sees a

       boy, afraid of the deep end,

drowning in the swimming pool of

       your throat.

                                He swears your

eyes are chlorine

                blue and black, you

both purple soot.

Skeets’s alternative is to embrace vulnerability, and to accept the fact that opening oneself up to intimacy also means opening oneself up to pain—his own, and the Other’s. The potential rewards are many: simultaneous sparks of queer love and queer lust animate these scenes, creating an atmosphere wherein individual pasts become a shared past.

Such legacies, both familial and colonial, are ever-present. “I arrange my father’s boarding school soap bones on white space / and call it a poem,” Skeets writes in “Drunktown,” evoking the long history of residential schools that sought to assimilate Native Americans into white culture by severing children’s ties to their pasts. But precisely because they perceive an entanglement between violence and pleasure, pain and exultation, the poems in Eyes Bottle Dark don’t fetishize oppression. In this way, the book orients itself toward the present and the future. The poems achieve that orientation by entwining a concern with natural landscape, Diné language, and an aesthetic that mines language’s capacity for visuality. That entwinement results in the heart-stopping construction of lines such as these, from “Thieving Ceremony”:

We become the black wool of a

     night sky

every time. Slide out of our clothes

     in a backseat,

            in a back room,

     black as a ye’ii mask.

We kiss, caesura to ensure the

     blackening. We are First Man and

Turquoise Boy ash-married in

       a ceremony that is ours now.

            Make charcoal

       of the boys before us

who have come to make love to the

      mass graves

in our teeth. To them our flesh is

      still soot, still furnace,

            still jet, still a cornstalk

      and a juniper tree

            left burning.

There is both harmony and tension in the references to “back” and “black,” “ash” and “charcoal,” “soot” and the burning plants and flesh. Most literally, this language sends us tumbling back into the history of indigenous genocide and the destruction it continues to enact. But the emotional manifestation is more complex, more urgent: two boys in love amid that destruction, their bodies burning for desire, alit yet hidden. This is an expansive notion of joy. There is joy in pain, in reflection, in noticing and being, even in a place where violence leaves its blooming bruises. This place is called America.

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