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Inside Job

“The proper study / of monkey-kind is man, / and the true study / of man is shenanigans.” So writes the playful, keen-eyed and accomplished poet John Skoyles in the poem “Evolutionary Shenanigans” from his fourth book of poetry, Inside Job. Inside Job is divided into three untitled sections, and the poems run the gamut from the autobiographical to sketches of literary figures like Jorge Luis Borges and Grace Paley.

“The proper study / of monkey-kind is man, / and the true study / of man is shenanigans.” So writes the playful, keen-eyed and accomplished poet John Skoyles in the poem “Evolutionary Shenanigans” from his fourth book of poetry, Inside Job. Inside Job is divided into three untitled sections, and the poems run the gamut from the autobiographical to sketches of literary figures like Jorge Luis Borges and Grace Paley.

This book was a real delight to read: full of carefully-crafted poems written in short, lyrically condensed lines with a nimble rhythm and cadence. And there are plenty of amusing “shenanigans” throughout this book I assure you. Take, for example, the poem: “Best-Selling Poet Threatens My Love Life.” The poet’s new girlfriend (who runs a pet store) calls him up to rave about another poet she has just heard on NPR that made her laugh and she wants her boyfriend to agree that this poet is funny. However, the author does not share her admiration, confessing to us his real feelings:

To me, the poet’s best

are few and far between
but it’s hopeless to quote

the Times review:
with him it’s never a line

that counts, but always the anecdote,
the one about.

But in order to preserve the relationship with his girlfriend, the poet decides to withhold his criticism, for he has learned from certain “tricksters”

like Frost that there are ways
of telling the truth, and I resort

to one of them: a lie.
“Yes,” I say, “Hilarious!

Are we on for tonight?”

Other poems in the collection, just as playful, have more of a metaphysical bite, like the poem “Someone, Somewhere” about the author’s grandmother who is certain that somewhere:

there exists a little girl
jumping rope who never lands
on a crack, who curtsies
in a pretty dress after singing
When, when, when
while the rest of us fade
into age. Even a corpse
casts a shadow, Grandma
used to say, and she was not
a student of Swedenborg
or Blake, but a maker
of meatballs, a baker of cakes,
a lover of steak who swore
houseplants flinched
when she carved a roast
in their presence.

The weird, suggestive, and evocative depth of the poem above (and others like it in the collection) has to me something of the uncanny flavor of another poet I admire, Charles Simic. However, Skoyle’s work seems more contextually grounded and while it flirts with ambiguity, he is also not afraid of the starkly declarative gesture, as in the poem “Capitalism,” which ends with the character of publicity stuntman James Moran saying: “It’s a sad day / when a man can’t fly a midget over Central Park.”

If you like poems that are alternately funny, wry, in-your-face, tender, hard-nosed, philosophical, witty and musical, you can’t go wrong with this book.

 

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