by Jeffrey Scolley
Periodically, I end up in a position to review a book, an album, or something similar from someone I personally know. With Electric City Creative, this obviously happens more often. Great Falls is only so large, and the magazine focuses primarily on local arts and culture. When it comes to people I know who have written books, especially ones who live in the same city, the pool is considerably smaller than that of the musicians and visual artists. So I like to support the cause. Given that more people read this site than read my magazine (let's be real), and given that now I obsessively feel the need to review every book I read (no matter how much my reading outpaces the reviewing), I want to promote my friends.
It's only as I open the book for the first time that it really sinks in — What do I say if I don't like it?
My husband teases me a bit and says I may be a hard-ass editor on people I don't know (or don't know well), but with people I do, I'm a forgiving softie. He's not entirely wrong. I still feel like a bit of a jerk for criticizing certain elements of Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet because, as honest as I was being, I've now spent time in the man's house. I start thinking, "Was I too harsh?"
I know that's not how reviews are supposed to work, but think about it — You want to cheer on your home team, even if you are less than thrilled with specific elements. Finding the best way to say that can be challenging.
So when Jeff Scolley tells me, shortly after I bought his Playground Swings and Yearning, "I want to know what sucks," I'm going to have to hope he meant what he said.
Your book does not suck.
Do Not Center Align Your Poems.
Also, it's probably not a good idea to say, "I don't like reading" on the back of your … book. Especially since I have evidence that's not entirely true.
Since the book is self-published through POD printer Xlibris, Scolley's lack of design experience shows. The cover and inside pages needed someone to come in and make it a prettier package, and of course we'd like to say that it shouldn't matter, that it's the writing that counts, but layout is still important. I wanted to be able to read in a way that made Scolley's voice echo in my ears.
Because I know him, I know he's a performance poet and an actor first. Having grown up in New Jersey and later having lived in NYC, he is no stranger to slam poetry competitions, and he does well. He's a born performer — good-looking, emotional where it counts and committed.
You want to watch him, to soak in what he has to say and feel it right along with him. Without actually hearing him say the words, this book doesn't quite do him justice. Some of these poems' natural habitat is not on the page, and because of that, the collection is made weaker.
Because there are 13 knots up the side of my spine
and I'm getting tired of fighting this lumpy throat condition.
Your name doesn't taste good any more,
coming back up,
but for some reason I'm vomiting
"I miss you" in puppy dog eyes and heavy shoulders,
hoping you'll have pity on me
and take me back to your spiderweb.
--"November 27 12:41 am"
(Not centered because this isn't my 1997 Angelfire site.)
He's since talked about why the reason many of his poems have timestamps for titles is that he wrote them on his phone, and that's how the notes were saved. I understand wanting to preserve the moment, but those time stamps mean nothing to the reader, except to tell us that he often writes poetry late at night. Give them titles. They need real titles.
The oft-heard phrase "puppy dog eyes" might seem like nothing much in reading it, but I know if I were to hear him on stage, everyone listening would be like, "Damn, man, how dare that girl break your heart."
One of the poems that works better on the page does have a title, but it doesn't quite feel like the right one — "My Pants are My Hiding Place." The experiences described are those that occur out of one's pants — first physicals, masturbation, sex with fair-weather friends, with an older girlfriend. It is all about honest discovery and the loneliness that follows. Even if "My pants are my hiding place" is the first line, the pants are really beside the point. Here is where we get to the meat of everything Scolley writes:
I have plenty of secrets and
many parts of me are still a mystery to myself.
Sometimes I think that even my fingers are coated
in the skin of another lover and I can't feel who I fall in love with.
I fall in love too often and
I can't feel it at times.
I tell myself I have a shield on my heart.
It doesn't work.
Scolley writes as a hopeless romantic who is still trying to figure out what he wants, and he desperately would like a woman there to hold while he does. A woman who, just maybe, might turn out to have desires complementary to his own. Love, lust and loneliness — he's got it bad, all right. At some time or another, we all know from where he speaks.
No, I don't think a traditional book is his best medium. Scolley needs a recording — audio or video — to really present his work in the best way. Sure, make a book as liner notes, an accompaniment, but no matter what, Get An Editor. Playground Swings and Yearning has some gems, but the whole package feels like everything remotely useable was thrown in, rather than the best material only. Judging by the newer stuff I've seen him perform, I know he's grown as a writer. He is better than what I read. That is certainly not say that what I read was bad, but it needed more work. I wanted it to be outstanding, rather than a "good enough" introduction.
If I had to pick a favorite title though, it's easily "When I Cry, I am Almost Always Standing Up." Hell yes. Tell me more.
How there's never enough time between
"I love you,"
and hanging up the phone
without thinking you did it wrong.
I'm not sure if the "you" is referring to himself or the girl, but the majority of the poems deal with a girl he already seems to know is slipping away. All the I Miss Yous in the world, all the hot late-night phone calls and "teasing temptations" are not going to save them once the physical distance becomes more permanent. Maybe I have an unfair advantage because I know a little bit about how the story ends past the last page, but in between the lines of what's written, it's there, and he is hoping so hard it will disappear. Do not leave me all alone, these poems say. I cannot yet bear to be alone.
There will be other women. Every person who makes Scolley's heart sing will be written about — the poetic and romantic parts of his being will compel him to do so, even if that other person is a stopgap to stave off facing the silence.
Chronic loneliness, it always interests me, and I want to see him explore it more, but I want him to do it better. I want the poems to have learned something from what came before, even if the future seems like madness.
If I'm prone to forgiveness when it comes to the people I know, fine. That's the way it should be, I think. I want to be won over, and at times, I've been just as much of a crazy lovestruck fool as the man speaking in these poems. And I understand the difference between a "voice," a point-of-view, and the living person who created them. I have written and erased and written again my stories of undoing, the things I wish I'd said, and the moments where all I want to do is lay in bed next to someone I love and let the world spin outside our door. I understand.
When we write about our most personal moments, we are changed by having documented them. Every completed work is a new evolution — or maybe even revolution — and Playground Swings and Yearning is step in that process. I know Jeff Scolley's best work is yet to come, and I can't wait to find out what that is.
Still, this? This is pretty fantastic:
Full Disclosure: I bought this book with my own fool money at Hastings. Because when your friend puts out a book, you buy it.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.