John Skoyles

A Brief Portfolio
December 23, 2023 Skoyles John



A detail like a grave
won’t stand in the way


of his shaking my hand
on the patio of his rooftop garden.


He was the first to tap
my hidden self on the shoulder


and open our menu of shared traits.
Scotch for him, sangria


for his underage nephew,
a Macanudo from his suitcoat pocket


providing the ash
out of which he rises today,


reminding me how I trailed him
at sundown to the pagan altars


of cathedral-like bistros.
He walked the zig-zag walk


all drunkards walk,
seeing death as nothing


but the aftertaste
of smoldering addictions.


He flicks his stub at a lilac
where it miraculously lands on a leaf.


And when I admire this oddity of balance,
my dropped pencil rests upright


on the eraser end. These headstands
of nature provide an apt setting


for the two of us,
predetermined wind-up toys


waiting for a child to step on them.
And that child is the god


who made all things. And made all things to pass.
This visit to my wayward uncle ends


when his widow opens the slider,
saying she’s swept her hearth’s display


of childhood dolls, and lost
Pinocchio’s screw-in-nose.


The whole point’s the nose, she says,
and asks him to look for it later.


He says he will but he’s lying.
He’ll be here with me. He’ll always be with me.





I’m writing this in purple ink
as was his wont,
a phrase that would have put him
in stitches—another cliché
he’d scorn ungently.
I miss my friend,
whose absence could fill a room
with stories
from those whose lives
he touched and tortured,
like the kid
who quit his class
than risk another thesaurus
tossed at his head.
When my son was sick,
Bill wrote
If I believed in god, I’d pray
but since I don’t,
here’s something to help.
Not cashing the check
made him angry, but stormy
feelings were his domain,
remnants of the orphanage
and army.
He changed the name
of his collected tome
on Amazon every day,
settling for
Dropping Sylvia Plath on Hiroshima
and Other Poems.
An unlikely ladies’ man,
lavender ink often leaking down his shirt—
let’s leave him
where I saw him last,
on a bed in a Mass Ave Mattress Firm,
sitting beside a gorgeous novelist,
both of them bouncing
and testing, collapsing
and laughing, then resting.




Here are the pencils
she favored:


mechanical, disposable
and bought by the case


to hover above
student stories


among cups, plates
and traces of grease


on the kitchen’s
glass topped table,


her ephemeral scrawl
to be read


by sleep deprived


How much lead
is left


in this one
whose grooved tip


I twist
to find it writes


of her writing
and her life


in this place,
both erased.




If anyone knows someone
looking for someone
not yet in the ER


and not recently
off the canvas
after a standing eight,


and if that someone
could care less
if I haven’t


done the steps,
learned to read
an excel actuarial


or an x-ray,


have them text me
when the sirens


so we can
stay on this carousel
until that second


called life
after death.




A frog along the clamshell path
provides three wishes and a rash.


Fall from a great height or never fall.


On the palm of my outstretched hand,
a kind of welcome, male to man.


Fall from a great height or not at all.


I dreamt I proposed in a hurricane,
and knelt for a marriage that never came.


Fall from a great height or never fall.


The frog must be Sigmund’s son,
he counts that dream as number one.


Fall from a great height or not at all.


We settled in for our nightly fix
of cartoon buffoons in politics;



from the radio


on the sill,
and a puppy drained of its free will.


Fall from a great height or never fall.


I wanted you to take my name.
My frog friend says he’s not to blame


for claiming that as number two.
I make a list of my lives with you,


and remember most the lightning kiss
we risked


by hugging on the beach in rain
as Frankie Dash sang “You’ve Changed.”


Fall from a great height or not at all.


Your face in summer on a pillow,
a candle and its flicker signal


the feverish
fulfillment of a final wish.


Fall from a great height or never fall.




I asked her one day,
and she said why not.


The tarot showed something
we both had forgotten-


face up, face down,
over and around,


it was then, it was never,
it was already and it was pleasure.


told fortunes


on an ironing board,
swiftly turning cards


and sending clients home
wary of the beyond.


She could see into the distance
where streetlights


edged the window frame
and on that ledge


a music box cat
sang a song


with my name in it.
An evening star crashed


right through the plate glass
of the living room where


I loved Sheila
and Sheila loved the moon.

John Skoyles’ most recent book is Yes and No (Carnegie-Mellon, 2021).  He is the poetry editor of Ploughshares.