Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers
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 fuck 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.
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Praise and Prizes
“Revelatory . . . By turns elegiac and erotic, the collection is also lush with language whose music evokes the landscape. This is one of the most accomplished and emotionally engaging debuts I have read, one that shows a man ‘unlearns how to hold a fist’ by holding another man’s hand.”
“Jake Skeets writes with such sparse yet full beauty, you sometimes don't know where the source of the power of these poems comes from. It is in the power of his language, in the craft, of course. It is in how the brutal experience of pain and loss can become a thing of beauty, which is where grace lives, which is where the best art comes from. There is so much bottle-dark beauty here. Skeets is a new, essential voice in poetry, in literature.”
“Illuminating and hauntingly incisive . . . [Skeets’s collection] deserves to be seen as the debut of a brilliant and transcendent poet, whose work conveys a gorgeous sense of self and of storytelling ability—qualities of the best literature in any tradition."
“One of my favorite new poetry books is Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers by Jake Skeets. . . . His poems bring us an intimate portrait of Diné masculinity.”
“Jake Skeets’s memorable first book . . . shows how, far more than in earlier decades, American poetry can give many of us what we need.”
“Incredibly beautiful . . . Skeets’s simple lines are highly impactful as they explore the complexities of love, desire and drunkenness and dirt and death.”
“Skeets’s poems capture furtive glances, queer lust, and the threads that link these various images. The book is not so much a reflection on queerness as an enactment of desire in iterative, emergent bursts.”
“Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers examines homosexuality and homosociality among Diné men in Drunktown, New Mexico, a southwestern desert town where desire and violence go hand in hand. The poems’ spare verse and direct language offer no shield from the brutality and beauty of the landscape.”
“Scintillating . . . Skeets’s darkly resonant debut book of poetry indulges readers in the dangerous eroticism experienced by its Diné speaker, for whom desire and violence intermingle at every turn.”
“Skeets’s raw debut offers beautiful imagery and memorable emotional honesty . . . [this collection] 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.”
“In Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, Ná'nízhoozhí, also known as Gallup, Drunktown, and Indian Eden, staggers through memory and violent desire with ‘pipelines entrench[ed] behind [its] teeth.’ Jake Skeets sings this reservation bordertown into being, where the ‘Navajo word for eye hardens . . . into war.’ This collection is inevitable and unrelenting, its tongue ‘coils on the trigger.’ The future of Navajo poetry reveals itself in these pages.”
“On its surface, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is an examination of toxic masculinity through the lens of a queer, indigenous Southwesterner, a book in which alcoholism, violence, and sex under cover of night are both ruefully and sensually described. But experiencing Jake Skeets’s collection is more akin to listening to a musical score to, or watching the choreography of, one Diné man’s vivid boyhood, the family and community of that boyhood, and the landscape holding them all. Indeed, like a lover, the land of these poems enters and ornaments Skeets’s men, old and young, dead and alive. His images haunt, and his use of repetition, field, and fragment provide the book’s structural genius. His is a major debut that feels to me timely and timeless—‘boys only hold boys / like bottles’—and is my singular joy to introduce.”
“Jake Skeets takes us to ‘The Indian Capital of the World,’ a landscape of erosion and erasure, where ‘boys only hold boys / like bottles’ and eros is a dangerous thing. In the brush and horseweed, ghosts and trains and abandoned trailers, a young Diné attempts to answer all the question marks of adolescence and early adulthood, desire and death commingling around him. These are poems born of unspokenness, testing the limits of language, love, and silence.”
"Jake Skeets's metamorphic debut, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, replete with poems of depth, musicality, clarity, and associative throughlines, brings its reader towards real and credible meaning. These poems insist upon harbor, limbus, nettle: as in 'American Bar,' when we are reminded that it is 'such a terrible beauty to find outselves beneath things.' As in 'Drunktown,' when we are given the rupture into experience: 'In between letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds, / a tractor tire backing over a man's skull.' As in 'Let There Be Coal,' when we begin to perceive that 'no light comes, just dust cloud, / glitterblack.' Skeets's poems deserve every celebration and rumination; this, as is his work, is irrefutable."