Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful
of Flowers
by Jake Skeets
Milkweed Editions, 2019; 104 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson


Like the immense Western landscapes that fill the book, Diné poet Jake Skeets’ National Poetry Series-winning collection Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers is partitioned and parceled by train tracks. The clocks that “ring out as train horns” structure the dreamlike passing of time, trains transport the uranium and coal that young Navajo boys dig near Window Rock, the tracks “split / Gallup / in two,” and they occasionally split people “like a river eats through the arroyo.” The train’s metonymy for displacement, colonialism, and division is balanced by Skeets’ mapping of queer desire and indigenous culture in the Southwest, positioning Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers as a vital work of both regional and national importance.

The collection is so compelling in part because of its layers of queer desire, Diné culture, and rural life. In some moments, the borders between desire and violence blur. We encounter “Gasps / for air between the cries // were his fists, punching holes / in every wall” or the epigrammatic observation that “the closest men become is when they are covered in blood / or nothing at all.” By contrast, poems like “Swallowing Kept Secrets” depict intimacy through gorgeous Ovidian transformations:

            He mouths oxeye and antelope sage. Pinioned,
                       he removes his shirt again to unveil wood rose

and feather cindered black. He calls for the fires
           as he undresses into nightjars.

Although its themes of queerness and masculinity are far-reaching, Skeets’ book should also be viewed as an important addition to the canon of Western regional writing. In this collection, landscape, anchored by specific points like “White Cone, Greasewood, Sanders, White Water, Breadsprings, Crystal, Chinle,” is not a neutral backdrop for enacting settler-colonialist identity performances or as a Bierstadtian figure of the sublime, emptied of its human traces. Instead, Skeets emphasizes the often violent intersections of human and landscape. Sometimes this is tied to the economic exploitation of the land, such as the father who “sips coal slurry from a Styrofoam cup” or a later description of a lover: “Pipelines entrench behind his teeth. I hear a crack in his lung like burning coal.”

Elsewhere, Skeets employs abject and uncanny images to depict the human cost of generational poverty and alcoholism among indigenous people. For instance, “The Body a Bottle” reads like a reflection of Baudelaire’s famous carcass poem in its conflation of flower imagery with depictions of a corpse: “cracked hawkweed sacrum / nectar bitter from the flower // its pelvis dyed matter dark / petal to sepal frazzled.” Unlike Baudelaire’s speaker, who enjoys the perverse thrill of forcing his companion to gaze on the putrefying carcass, the notational listing of details in Skeets’ poem shifts the burden of looking onto the reader. There is no mediating presence, no relief in the form of a distancing effect. By the end of the poem, the corpse has become a landscape unto itself: “yellow madder crushed into sand / fresh blood oozes at the lips // the hair matted root / inlet of a river done in.”

Skeets’ attention to the materiality of the Western landscape also extends to the language used to describe it. Sometimes, this relationship feels ecstatic, like the thickly knotted diction in “Maar” when Skeets writes, “buffaloburr veins around siltstone / mounds on the monocline” or “loccolith ghost shadows over hungry dust.” On the other hand, this materiality of language can be surreal and frightening, like in “Red Running Into Water”:

táchii’nii dashícheii
the á now a head busted open
           red running into water
the í is the boy now naked
           red running into water

Beyond its durable imagery and striking turns of phrase, Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers succeeds in capturing a side of the American West that is too often obscured by frontier rhetoric, anachronism, and nostalgia for a destructive imaginary. Skeets unflinchingly gazes into the insoluble contradictions of the West and leaves us with something approaching hope: “We could be boys together finally,” he writes in the final poem. “We can be beautiful again beneath / the sumac, yarrow, and bitter water.”