BOOK REVIEW by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Winter 2002-03
KENTUCKY SWAMI by Tim Skeen. BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2001. ISBN 1-886157-33-2. 75 pages. www.umkc.edu/bkmk
In his Ciardi Prize-winning debut collection, Tim Skeen is writing solidly in the tradition of E.A.Robinson, Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg Ohio. But the poems of Kentucky Swami are even sparer, more meticulously factual and more flatly reportorial than those predecessors. However, this doesn’t mean that we ever get the whole story. Skeen gives us only those vital fragments needed to make his point, and the point of each poem may be social, philosophical, symbolic or all of the above. Many of these pieces don’t bother to name their human subjects. Some merely identify the main character as an uncle, brother or friend. Several concern the poet’s father.
These are rock-hard pieces chipped from the tough lives of poor people: they depict an American wasteland of ruptured pipes, junk cars, bad luck and “poverty, poverty, poverty”. They celebrate people who work hard all their lives, fight America’s wars, get cheated out of their pensions, lose their old age to work-related diseases and still find gems of pleasure in among the ruins. There are few ‘poetic lines’ to quote here; rather the poetry of each piece exudes from its totality like a drop of amber on a maple branch.
To mention a few of Skeen’s ‘people poems,’ How I Got My Name sketches with a few deft strokes, the life of Juanita, a victim of repeated episodes of bad luck, who brought the poet’s mother a handful of timothy grass telling her to name her son after it. The Voice of a Woman with One Lung, describes the screams of someone whose throat cancer has condemned her to emit sounds through a tiny aperture in her neck. The causes of her condition in Pall Malls, black coffee and digitalis are hinted at. She is buried with a “light blue scarf/ the color of smoke around the hole/ in her throat”.
Skeen recalls throwing a baseball, as a boy, with Elton Maynard an embittered alcoholic who pitches the ball harder and farther with each exchange. Tim never finds the ball that soars over his head into the deep grasses, just as he is unable to find his way to the funeral after Elton is laid low by bourbon.
Kentucky Swami speaks of the physical traumas that change people’s lives as in, Scar, or Systemic Lupus. The first is a woman’s memento of a caesarian birth; the second a condition that both sickens a woman but also seems to fuel her boundless energy. Nola outlives parents, brothers, children and pets. The butterfly on her face is indicative of the life-force blazing through her. “The rash is only the body’s way/ of holding onto fire”.
In one of the most impressive pieces in this book—Patrick Lowell Putnam’s Monologue— the writer seems to adopt the persona of an Agent Sanitaire for the Belgian Red Cross in Africa. (Skeen was a Red Cross volunteer in Appalachia for ten years.) The crisis of a native woman’s breech-birth is used to explore Skeen’s relationship with his physician father and the strict Boston heritage which he represented. This is rejected in favor of the freedom and reality found in Africa. Even “the woman from/ the New Yorker…wasn’t shocked that I’d taken a native wife…but that I had three wives”. But some Westerners get it. The King and Queen of Belgium join him for a night of “dancing with the pygmies, eating wild mushrooms/ honey, smoking marijuana, yodeling!”
Most of the ‘people poems’ in this volume comment on social problems, deal with personal relationships or blend the twain. Of the former, we may list: Strike; Graphite; The Instructor at the Police Academy Teaches the Come-Along; Signing Up For Unemployment Benefits; Gameday Saturday Afternoon; Jehovah’s Witnesses; The American Red Cross; Directions to the Otter Creek Correctional Facility; A Commonwealth of Kentucky #2 Pencil; War Memorial in Wheelwright, Kentucky; At the Gulf War Veteran’s Funeral; To Another Student Who Forgot to Put His Name on His Paper; Public Works; and The Masonry Professor at the Community College. Of the latter: Tongue; Biljana; Rural; For My Wife on Our Six-Week Anniversary; The Lancaster Room; She Asks If I Love Her; The Unmet Needs; To Our Unborn Child; Translation of a Mathematical Equation Which I Found on a Blackboard; and For the Record. I shall leave it to the reader to ferret out those in the blended category.
Beyond these, there are a few pieces that frankly deal with eternal questions such as 1Place Denfert-Rochereau; nature poems such as The Sunken Garden; and some found poems like, Buck Owens and His Buckaroos in Japan.
There’s humor in this book, usually bitter-sweet as in Safe-T-Man, a poem about an inflatable male figure a woman can sit in her car next to her to project the idea that she’s not alone. But the menace of modern society hovers in the background of this work just as it does in 9800 Franklin Avenue where the finding of a severed bird-wing “opened on a rock/ like a handkerchief left/ to dry in the sun,” clouds the atmosphere of trust and security that had sustained a neighborhood.
While this is not the place to critique individual poems at length, many are certainly worth the effort. This poet may not strive for quotable tidbits, but he doesn’t hesitate to serve up bloody meat on a platter as he does when describing the brutal love-hate relationship between him and his brother as children in, She Asks If I Love Her. Each wearing one boxing glove, the brothers would beat each other bloody and end up hugging tenderly. The stunning answer to the wife’s question as posed in the title, and referring to the struggling brothers, is found in the last line: “I have come to mistrust any subsequent version”. Kentucky Swami doesn’t try to sell us any sort of romanticized window-dressing. These are poems you can trust.