As Sunrise Becomes the World: A Trilogy
by Louie Skipper
As Sunrise Becomes the World: A Trilogy “is neither a collection of poems, nor a re-issuing. It is not a simple selection or a sampling. Given the reordering of poems, considering the poems from the earlier work that are here omitted, and appreciating the reshaping here undertaken, this book is a whole and new thing unto itself. I have read few books like it, with its scope and with its length of vision. So be it, then, the book concludes. It is at once a sad and just and hopeful end. As Sunrise Becomes this World is a remarkable achievement.”
—Edward Haworh Hoeppner
from his preface
An Episcopal priest, Louie Skipper lives in the greater Birmingham, Alabama area with his wife Susan. As Sunrise Becomes the World: A Trilogy is his sixth collection of poems.
Come the winter rains and the house not yet snared in evergreen, under the sky of loblolly and water oaks wet and swaying, down the cracks in the sidewalk and around into the parking lot,
Impalas and Fairlanes, lights on bright,
wipers sopping their fogged windshields, out of school these December days before Christmas, it is 1960. I am here with a wet list in my pants’ pocket,
a grown-up list, in cursive, with a tin of syrup, aspirin,
two pounds of bacon, and a dozen eggs I’ll remember as a man for their yellow bladders sliding across the green kitchen floor
out the bottom of the sack in my grandmother’s outstretched hands.
Behind the steel counter, Mr. Dorty lays out slice by slice the pink thick bacon across the white butcher paper like the display by a jeweler of sparkles on velvet,
a package he weighs
then marks on the yellow tape in red crumbling crayon. That weight, as it does each time, passes from his hand to mine. Still I stay on, not for a break in the rain
but to pull closer to the rib roasts large as my head,
hams swelled and halved, the shade of lipstick and the pink leather seats of Thunderbirds, great snakes of round sun-brown sausages,
I learn each by shape and heft through the leaning glass the way a brighter boy might memorize melting snow or a fly rod before looking up.
The butcher has cupped a fly in his hands.
He motions for me to come to his side where the block of wood half my size stands on four legs, beaten down and wiped clean.
He asks and I turn the handle at the sink, fill a glass with water,
step back at once until the fly’s struggle in the glass ends as it began under the butcher’s one great finger. It floats upside down,
a tiny black accordion on the water’s tension.
The butcher in my mind now even after forty-five years, is as large as a Philistine. He picks the fly out. He places it on the block
to pour through his fist over its upturned legs a little mound of salt.
The two of us wait and nothing happens and he is telling me to be patient when the salt begins to landslide, the fly wriggling to upright itself
then standing to one side as though waiting its turn to take off,
rubbing its wings and front legs, greedy to be alive. “Are you going to kill it?” I ask.
“Anything that’s been through all that ought to live,” he laughs
and I walk back into my life. Outside the rain is sucking back into the clouds. The sack is soaked and before Christmas ends
I overhear Mr. Dorty drowned alone and made the news,
falling over into the river out of his boat and out of his life. I am filled with the great weight of not being there to bury him in salt.
I do not remember anyone else in that store.
Like these lists, the days begin to belong more and more to everyone and no one quite like the butcher or the boy until even he is older
than the unforgettable performers he holds inside,
wrapping them in such impossibly white paper, waiting alone for such stirring from within to put down whatever the dead need to struggle through again.
PREFACE to As Sunrise Becomes the World: A Trilogy — by EDWARD HAWORTH HOEPPNER
This trilogy, As Sunrise Becomes the World, re-presents three books of poetry written by Louie Skipper, three books fashioned again, edited and conjoined so that the most singular feature of this poet’s work steps forth in all its power and complexity. This effort rests in and shudders forth from a determination to situate one life in the midst of the lives that precede and surround it. Death is implicit to an effort like this, not only because history is treated here as a first-hand experience, but because the individual life, the life of this poet, is particularly marked by it, and measured against the need to comprehend.
I first met Louie Skipper when we were office mates at the University of Iowa, in 1974. We were young men, young poets taken with what were then widely held poetic notions. There was avant-garde work being done, the “other” tradition championed by Marjorie Perloff, advanced by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, by writers in San Francisco and New York, poetry that, within the next decade, would considerably alter the landscape, but most American poetry, as had been the case for 10 or 15 years, was some blend of the lyric and the narrative.
The “scene” was pastoral more than urban; the personal, sometimes couched in the confessional or the Beat, was preeminent. There was a vaguely Emersonian overlay to modes of attention promoted by William Carlos Williams. There were political issues—Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, feminism—but there was some skepticism about political themes, since first-hand experience was so often a requisite.
Many of us then did not yet understand the relationship between the personal and the political, and national politics were not yet given the global perspective we are familiar with today. When poets turned to political themes it was mostly a matter of pointing out how our country had gone wrong. 9/11 had not happened; terrorism seemed a distant thing; the Information Age had not arrived; social media did not exist; the personal was not generally regarded as a socio-cultural construct; “voice” had not been blended into persona; identity derived from the physical world encountered day by day, from dreams and the backlog of memory. Different times.
Many of the poets that influenced Louie Skipper—Dickinson, Rilke, Stevens, Neruda, Vallejo, James Wright, William Stafford—were poets I also read. But there was something else for him, because Louie Skipper is a Southern poet. He read the Fugitives in a way I did not understand; he admired the work of Robert Penn Warren. He recalled being on his grandmother’s lap, being read to from the King James version of the Bible; on our kitchen table he drummed with his fingers cadences he had played in the University of Alabama Million Dollar Band; he could pick up a random piece of prose—often bad prose—and read it in a voice that combined Jimmy Carter with James Dickey, a voice that, as musical as it was, amazed my Minnesota-bred sensibilities.
I mention all this because an understanding of music, an understanding of voice as music, is critical to any reading of Skipper’s poetry. Even when his interests turn to the surreal that is nonetheless the case. And in As Sunrise Becomes the World this is particularly true, because the music of language is not merely sound. As is true of poets such as Dylan Thomas and Randall Jarrell, music is a response to the tone of an experience, the mood struck by a certain configuration of reality. In As Sunrise Becomes the World, that music is everywhere. The cadence and tonal repetitions are not merely descriptive: they replicate, they rise and fall with the act they witness. And the music of voice does something else in this work, something perhaps more important. In the drawn-out vowels, in the rhythm of the line, the voice can be heard as markedly Southern. It is the voice of the tribe. It is voice as personal, familial, regional and, ultimately, spiritual. And there is a story to this voice, always, and it is the story of the self in context, the self as conceived of in the midst of an ongoing and particular spiritual journey.
That journey is, in the broadest sense, the history of our country in the 1960s. Vietnam, the assassinations of Kennedy in 1963, King and Kennedy in 1968. It is also the history of the American South, the Night Riders, the sit-ins, the bridge in Selma. In As Sunrise Becomes the World, that history is personal and immediate. Skipper names the sites of lynchings; he remembers Wilbur Jackson, the only black man on the field, running for a touchdown in Legion Field: “it was not that the uncoiled fire hoses of Birmingham // were rendered powerless, / or that the dark and shallow delta graves // rose / in unrequited light,” the poet says, but “was he not for that moment a god?” And this is a crucial question, because in the midst of poems deeply troubled by history, peopled by ancestors, grocers, butchers, childhood friends and school teachers, the notion that the past might be somehow redeemed, that history might cause more than despair is both central and intensely personal.
As Sunrise Becomes the World joins work from three books—Deaths that Travel with the Weather, The Fourth Watch of the Night, and It Was the Orange Persimmon of the Sun—and it sets the earlier work against itself so that the desire to salvage time stands forth clearly. The birth of a son figures largely in Deaths that Travel with the Weather (1992), a book that deals with the present by looking backward through childhood and inheritance, and forward into the changed life that parenthood initiates. “Aperture of salt, / little horse, // I hold you / through the night,” part of this book-length poem claims, moving toward a hopeful but uncertain future in which, as the poem concludes (with what becomes, in the context of this trilogy, a portentous note): “I want to hear the deep nothing calling my name.” I say portentous because, in spite of the fact that this line describes what this book has aimed to do, Louie’s Skipper’s next book will be 10 years in the making. His wife, Stephanie, will die in 1993 from the breast cancer with which she struggled. She was then 37, their son, Stephen, 7.
The Fourth Watch of the Night appears in 2002, after Skipper completes seminary in Austin, Texas, and is ordained as an Episcopalian priest. A diary of death witnessed and an extended elegy, this section—much of which consists of tight, 15-line poems developed in part from his journals made in the years Stephanie underwent treatment—is as careful and profound an examination of death as I have ever read. I do not know what it would be like to undertake to write a book of necessity like this. But these poems, beginning from an end already seen, do not flinch. Early in this series we are invited into “days like these, / hours that fall into leaves / that mornings raise from the winter lawns / until at last comes the day earth turns against her.” As these days unfold, small things, details of the world, serve in a husband’s attempt to somehow stay within the world even as it dissolves around him and his dying wife: “the flat-faced owl’s quavering trill,” “a yellow leaf hanging, spinning from a strand of spider web,” “the unfinished stars.”
This Section II looks back through the last days of Stephanie’s life, often to fashion a kind of inevitable liturgy out of grief. In “Yes, Light,” the longest poem in this series and in part an address to his son, Sappho and Jesus are invoked. Jesus, as “the kind of man / Sappho would have loved”; Jesus, “healed” by the “sudden, flooding joy” of the lepers cured; Sappho, as “the reflection of all / mortal love looking back,” as “the opening rose,” is nonetheless a “holocaust” seen in the faces of other women taking chemo at the hospital where Stephanie dies.
Of course there is prayer in these poems, prayer to defend, prayer to protest, prayer to implore. There is belief and the failure of belief, rendered as something like the same thing. This entire section, in fact, is a kind of sustained prayer, one that finishes in an optative gesture. “Epithalamium,” the last poem, conjures the future as a kind of wish: “Someday too I will awaken,” “Someday the woods will be burning,” “Someday I will tell what I have seen.” In that day, the poem concludes, “in that dawn that will come // there will be no end to the saying of all final things.”
Section III, worked up from poems that first appeared in It Was the Orange Persimmon of the Sun (2006), is thoroughly retrospective and knits together the individual parts of the whole. Half of the poems reexamine the poet’s childhood, the local characters and the natural world that informed it. And regional history is also featured, as in “Lines to be Read Over the Grave of Jeroboam Manasseh, Hanged at Fourteen From a Tree at the Edge of a Field in Alabama.” The refrain in this poem, however—“I shall answer the heavens / and they shall answer the earth”—marks a different treatment of the past than the one initially given in Deaths that Travel with the Weather. These are the poems of a man deliberately trying to reenter life. He does so by seeing in the boy he was the man he has become, and by moving through life now in the company of “the body / that lies under my own cold stone, // the two of us silent in the way of friends.” There is also a religious note, and many of the poems are fitted with a hard-won devotion.
If there’s no God, what can you do?
He’s still in the distant thunder, and in Elijah’s sheer silence
and small still voice. He’s in the music
that’s always echoing Eden in ruins,
in the dune-tic-a-dune-tic-a-dune,
the refrain that strays up and gets lost
in the thud and thump
the old gold Coupe-de-Ville shakes loose at the light.
It’s no accident that the recovery of life in the face of loss entails voice in these lines, and that voice blurs into music. Here is the drum cadence I heard in Iowa City more than 40 years ago, and here is a priest’s recourse to belief that arises out of that silence that makes music possible.
One brilliant long poem in this section, “The Goldberg Variations,” is a tribute to Bach, who—for the boy who listened—became “a proof of God at the hands of Glenn Gould” who too “will die in my world without end.” A proof and a guardian, and there are other guardians who join Bach and Gould. Neruda and Jeroboam Manasseh. Lazarus and Yeats and Marcel Marceau. And, perhaps most importantly, in the book’s final poem, “The Last Word,” there is Pontius Pilate, who was “bothered” by “the weight of his little authority.” In part, this poem sympathizes with that man: “What is the truth, Pilate inquired / and I have never seen anything / wrong with that.” Pilate may seem a curious figure for a priest to invoke, but Pilate’s words, in this context, are no mere dismissal. They immediately follow another summation: “Dust to dust, I said what I had seen. / Were you there?” These phrases echo the poet’s concern with truth. They witness to the crucial fact of death. They also look back through a life’s work in poetry, and they complete a request for forgiveness and the benediction that precedes them:
but all I have to give you is my hand
raised somehow toward heaven and brought down,
leaning on one finger crossing east to west,
all horizon, little sign of the cross
behind the vapor trail of the dog collar,
another way to say Amen and Amen.
I’ve used “retrospective” to describe the last poem in this book, but the trilogy in itself is such a thing, and rare for that. This book is neither a collection of poems, nor a re-issuing. It is not a simple selection or a sampling. Given the reordering of poems, considering the poems from the earlier work that are here omitted, and appreciating the reshaping here undertaken, this is a whole and new thing unto itself. I have read few books like it, with its scope and with its length of vision. So be it, then, the book concludes. It is at once a sad and just and hopeful end. As Sunrise Becomes The World seems to me a remarkable achievement. It has done for me what great books do: it has changed the way I consider my life.