Selected by Kathy Fagan as a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is a debut collection of poems by a dazzling geologist of queer eros.
Drunktown, New Mexico, is a place where men “only touch when they f**k in a backseat.” Its landscape is scarred by violence: done to it, done on it, done for it. Under the cover of deepest night, sleeping men are run over by trucks. Navajo bodies are deserted in fields. Resources are extracted. Lines are crossed. Men communicate through beatings, and football, and sex. In this place, “the closest men become is when they are covered in blood / or nothing at all.”
But if Jake Skeets’s collection is an unflinching portrait of the actual west, it is also a fierce reclamation of a living place—full of beauty as well as brutality, whose shadows are equally capable of protecting encounters between boys learning to become, and to love, men. Its landscapes are ravaged, but they are also startlingly lush with cacti, yarrow, larkspur, sagebrush. And even their scars are made newly tender when mapped onto the lover’s body: A spine becomes a railroad. “Veins burst oil, elk black.” And “becoming a man / means knowing how to become charcoal.” Rooted in Navajo history and thought, these poems show what has been brewing in an often forgotten part of the American literary landscape, an important language, beautiful and bone dense.
Sculptural, ambitious, and defiantly vulnerable, the poems of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers are coal that remains coal, despite the forces that conspire for diamond, for electricity.
Winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, Skeets's searing debut is set in Gallup, N.Mex., the so-called "Indian Capital of the World," plagued by alcoholism and violence, where the poet came of age as a young queer man. Skeets's imagery is luminous and dark in turns, his short, heavily punctuated phrases generating a staccato rhythm ("Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp"). Sex and violence are intrinsically linked in Gallup, at least for men, who "only touch when they fuck in a backseat/ go for the foul with thirty seconds left/ hug their son after high school graduation/ open a keg/ stab my uncle forty-seven times behind the liquor store." The poet's sexual awakening is described with a predatory tinge, as a series of brief and clandestine encounters in backseats and bushes: "He bodies into me/ half cosmos, half coyote." Gallup's topography of train tracks and coal mines is depicted with bleak realism through Skeets's trademark brevity: "Men/ spit/ coal/ tracks rise/ like a spine." Skeets subtly rebukes the hypermasculinity that breeds homophobia and violence and excoriates the centuries of oppression that have caused the scourge of alcohol abuse in Native American communities (the poem "The Indian Capital of the World" enumerates a series of alcohol-related deaths drawn from Gallup newspaper headlines). Skeets's raw debut offers beautiful imagery and memorable emotional honesty.