In many of the texts I’ve read about land, it is most often connected with the feminine, so I was pleasantly surprised by the navigation of masculinity in the terrain of the American southwest. Set in border towns of the Navajo Nation, the poems in the collection, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, conjure images of land scarred by and inextricably fused with the hand of man. This is a place opened for industry, where railroad tracks are soldered onto the land, and the earth punctured for extraction.
Earlier this year, Jake Skeets tweeted that the closest Diné word for poet is “Saad Naa’ach’aah” translated in English to mean “drawing words.” When imagining this territory, it’s easier to see the vestiges of human activity, and this is where Skeets so deftly repopulates this expansive space with individuals past and present, with varying degrees of agency, and whose memories have terrestrial resonance. They are not easy images. A body is lacerated by an oncoming train, staining the landscape, in the titular poem. Coal, a most conflicted resource powering and exploiting Navajo lands, is personified throughout the collection in that
“…becoming a man
means knowing how to become charcoal
staccato of ash
holding a match to their skin
trying not to light themselves on fire
and its significance to man predetermined by the celestial declaration “Let there by coal.”
Bottle caps are strewn across the landscape and the body, most visibly as the eyes of these various characters, almost as jewels pressed into the countenances of trauma and survival. While Skeets so beautifully notes that “the minute hand runs its fingers through the outcrops” in “Drunktown,” the sense of time in all its scales—as fleeting as a life, as lingering as capital and industry, as patient yet burdened as geological processes renewing biological remains—compels the reader to consider what becomes of us. There is an incomprehensibility of the living when contemplating its transformation into fossil.
There are more nostalgic moments, particularly in “Comma,” as the punctuation is lifted from the page—“dangling like belt buckles,” “as toddler asleep on crisp sheets,” “body fetaled in big snow beneath I-40”—yet preserved in characteristic uncertainty “before the comma becomes a period.” The use of the Diné Bizaad and incorporation of Navajo diacriticals are not only strongly appreciated but also a testament to the necessity of hearing poems read aloud.
Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is a National Poetry Series-winning debut collection from the Pushcart Prize-nominated, Diné poet Jake Skeets by Milkweed Editions. Skeets is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, editor of the online publication Cloudthroat, organizer of the poetry salon and reading series Pollentongue, and instructor at Diné College, all situated in the Navajo lands of the southwestern United States.
—Sarah Wang, Programming Coordinator