Forty years ago, Richard Avedon took a photograph of Jake Skeets' uncle. Benson James, Drifter, Gallup, New Mexico, 06/30/79 shows a Navajo man against a white backdrop. He stares into the camera, his stained snap-button Wrangler shirt half-untucked, his shoulders squared into a stance that reads as either confrontational or cool. He clenches a fistful of dollars. The other hand is cupped elegantly at his side.
It's an intriguing image on its own, but it is also a ghost story. By the time Avedon sent a signed copy of his 1985 book In the American West to James, whose portrait appears in it, Skeets' uncle was gone. A year after the photo was taken, James had been stabbed to death in Gallup. Skeets grew up staring at the photo by the famous photographer in his aunt's house, wondering what was behind his uncle's dark eyes.
Benson James, Drifter is the cover of Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019), Skeets' National Poetry Series-winning debut collection of poems, which was published just one year after Skeets' MFA graduation from the Institute of American Indian Arts. In the book, the poet reckons with the shadow of his uncle's legacy — "his face becomes a mirror/if I stare long enough"—and of his own queer identity. The poems are set in Gallup and on the Navajo Nation, where Skeets grew up in Vanderwagen as a member of the Black Streak Wood clan.
Reading Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is dizzying and hallucinatory, an experience that might be akin to siphoning gasoline (which happens in one of its poems). It's hard to tell what's happening when and where in the liminal place Skeets calls Drunktown, where a gay kid comes of age among toxic masculinity and reservation trauma. Violent events are retold from a state of grace. Images of light and darkness are locked in battle, swirling around each other in a precarious balance. Standing up from reading the book in one sitting, I staggered a little.
There's a lot of staggering in the poems.
Skeets writes, "Like my father, I come upon death/staggering into the house with beer on the breath."
Drunk men lurch into lanes of traffic, or sleep beside the train tracks. Their machismo and their alcoholic bloodlines are their armor.
"Men around here only touch when they fuck in a backseat," Skeets writes, "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 a liquor store."
Sex offers an escape, stolen in arroyos and fields vibrating with cottonwoods, sagebrush, bellflowers and snakeweed. These erotic interludes are still attached to violence. "Such a terrible beauty to witness men ripen," Skeets writes. But fragility creeps in. "He unlearns how to hold a fist/with my hand."
Throughout the book, Skeets filters stereotypical depictions of Gallup through his mind's eye. His poem "Sleepers" is a response to a 1971 Calvin Trillin story in The New Yorker called "Drunken Indians." It quotes from the article: "The drunks picked up after the jail was crammed full used to sleep on the stairs that led down from the old jail to the main of the Gallup City Hall." Skeets' poem becomes a benediction for this faction of drinkers. He conjures an image of the sleepers out in the fields, decorated with crowns made from desert flowers, laying on brush that becomes "medicine beneath them."
I've never read any poetry like these alternately herky-jerky and rollicking lines—sometimes scattered all over the page, other times neatly coupled together—and their mixture of Dinè lore and language with pastoral sex, glittering brutality and cultural reckoning. The stories Skeets tells us, along with the terrible beauty he conjures, are their own medicine.
Meanwhile, I just read an essay about Santa Fe in I Used to Be Charming, the new collection of nonfiction pieces by Eve Babitz (New York Review Books Classics, 2019). Babitz is the ultimate LA cool girl, a '70s rock chick and album cover designer who was photographed nude at age 20 playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. She's also a sharp, hilarious writer whose best work has been reissued over the last few years, sparking a Babitz renaissance and a show in development at Hulu. In contrast to the New Mexico Skeets depicts in Eyes Bottle Dark, most of Babitz's Santa Fe observations, written in 1995, are generically touristy. Here's an especially hokey line about the city in December:
"Spirits hang in the air, exiled in this romantic place made from the geology, the three cultures, and the altitude."
But just next to that, right after a digression on blue corn enchiladas at The Shed, she hits the nail precisely on the head about the perks of winter in Northern New Mexico. It's an echo of recent thoughts I've had during silent snowbound walks through the Westside-Guadalupe Historic District:
"I prefer Santa Fe in the winter," Babitz writes. "No one's there but the angels and the sky, the clouds, the sunsets."
Molly Boyle is a former editor of crime fiction at Penguin and Random House. She has worked at five bookstores and only been fired by one.