On Jake Skeets’s “Drunktown”

from Jake SkeetsEyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

Indian Eden. Open tooth. Bone bruise. This town split in two.Clocks ring out as train horns, each hour hand drags into a screech—
iron, steel, iron. The minute hand runs its fingers
through the outcrops.

Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp.
In between the letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds,
                                                           a tractor tire backing over a man’s skull.

In a six-part poetic sequence, Skeets describes the difficult lives that young Indian men often face in Gallup, New Mexico. The first section of “Drunktown” uses telling details to reveal life in what it calls Indian Eden. But of course, this is not paradise. Like the bodies that seem to inhabit the town, Indian Eden is injured, “split in two.” It is a town where even time—physical and animate—is driven by the come-and-go of freight trains and more concerned with the “outcrops,” the spaces outside its human lives. The first stanza foreshadows what readers eventually learn: that Indian Eden is a space where the bodies of young men (drunk, ill, suicidal) are torn apart by trains. Time, equally brutal, also rends lives apart.

Cover image for Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

In the second stanza, Skeets describes Drunktown. “Drunk is the punch,” he writes, comparing the town to a physical blow as well as the punchline of a joke, though nothing Skeets describes in the town feels laughable. Abandoned, rural, a place where a body (dead? drunk? sick? a victim of violence?) might be run over by an unsuspecting driver. Not the suburbs.

Further on, the poem reveals that a relative of the speaker, drunk and tired, has chosen a poor site to sleep. But at this moment, readers see a man’s skull broken by a tractor. The story, context, and the additional emotional weight come later and deepen the horror.

Town a gasp,” Skeets writes, a gulp, an exclamation, a cry, as if words only fail in this place of bone bruise and broken skulls. Skeets shows readers that names (also a kind of imagery) destabilize or alter meaning or shift perspective. He critiques the connotations and plumbs the meanings in the place names that surround us, revealing both historical and contemporary pain, revealing where we make our lives.

Jake SkeetsEyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers. Milkweed Editions, 2019