by Athena Kildegaard
Karen Skolfield calls winning the PEN NE award for her first book of poems, Frost in the Low Areas, “big news.” For a mother of two small children, a teacher, and the owner of one goat—in short, a very busy woman—writing a book of poetry is big enough, but garnering such an award is news of some magnitude. Skolfield grew up in Pennsylvania, joined the military, and received her MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she now teaches technical writing to budding engineers.
If there’s a guiding spirit behind Skolfield’s attentive book, it would be Elizabeth Bishop. First, because Skolfield is curious about the world around her, scooping up the news; second, because she is a poet of restraint; and finally, Bishop’s beloved poem “One Art,” like a bell just struck, reverberates through the book.
Richard Blanco, who readers will remember read his poem “One Today” at Obama’s first inaugural, judged the PEN NE prize and said about Frost in the Low Areas, “Skolfield made me fall in love with poetry all over again. . . . I will never again look at a baby, a fossil, a painting, a key, a homunculus—or myself—as I had before.” Blanco’s list reveals some of the curiosity Skolfield exhibits; let me add light anti-tank weapons, botox, and the Pleistocene. In an interview with the poetry editor of Swarm, Skolfield says, “I’m a crow. As a writer I’m interested in the next shiny thing. . . . I puzzle over things, I set my beady eye there.”
In her poem “Birds Unloved,” she sets her beady eye on grackles. Here are the opening lines:
In flocks the grackles, giant flocks at fall.
No migration but they moved around
in darkening flocks, moving not from cold
but toward greater flocks, merging
into tributaries into rivers into oceans,
from comparative to superlative, grackle sky.
They perched on the forest behind some houses,
replacing the downed leaves, shaking
as if they were leaves, the great noise of them
greater than leaves, their great grackle sound.
A lesser poet might stop with the grackles, let this exuberance be, but Skolfield’s beady eye continues paying attention. The poem turns its attention to a girl, “plain the way the birds were plain,” watching the birds, “waiting until all the birds had lit,” and then taking up a two-by-four. In the last lines of the poem, the girl answers the great sound of the grackles.
Then brings it clapping down,
flat to the deck, the clarity of it cutting
through grackle and they lift clarity
all at once into a sky that will again turn blue.
The girl is evidently Skolfield’s younger self: earlier in the poem Skolfield writes, “the thing I have to thank her for / is her fascination with grackles flocking.” Her fascination becomes the reader’s, and we’re thankful too.
Attention to the natural world and to memory enliven Skolfield’s poetry. A third source of vitality is her interest in the details of the imagination. Her poem “Art Project: Earth” is a good example:
Balloon, then papier mâché.
Gray paint, blue and turquoise, green,
a clouded world with fishing line attached
to an old light, original to the house, faux brass
chipping, discolored, an ugly thing.
Her language is tenuous, thanks to the sentence fragment that opens the poem and the unexpected ordering of adjectives. This tenuousness will matter later in the poem. But for now, she’s given us a thing that we can imagine holding, smelling, spinning. Once she knows her reader is grounded in this world she leaps into the world of her imagination:
the people of this planet think, the ground
knobby and dry, the oceans blue powder,
the farmland stiff and carefully maintained.
Here we see her beady eye making a study of this imagined planet, where “the people learn to love, regardless.” She gives over 13 lines to this world and its people and then ends the poem with this:
for instance. Six suns. The wonder of it.
First one, then the next, eclipsing
the possibility that their world hangs by a thread.
Her imagined world is in fact much like ours—a place that rewards close attention, a place where, if we have “towering hearts,” we can love regardless—though it is a tenuous world, one hanging by a thread.
In Frost in the Low Areas, Skolfield continually uses images to point to and hint at the tenuous. The poet Marie Howe, in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terri Gross, remarked that “Every poem holds the unsayable inside it.” We must acknowledge that language is a slight boat for carrying what we wish to say. How much slighter it is for what’s unsayable. Poetry, through image and metaphor, if handled well, holds the unsayable. Skolfield builds yar boats, trim and sound.
Skolfield joined the military at 18 and trained as a military journalist. Journalists, of course, are taught to provide the main facts, the who/what/where/why/how; they are taught, in short, to leave nothing out, or, at least, to write in such a way that the reader is unaware of anything left unsaid. Skolfield’s poem “Movie Night” tells of an evening during training when the movie “Full Metal Jacket” is shown. The poem is peppered with reminders that war means death: trip wires, tank mines, men “who died with their backs turned,” gunpowder, bullets, flames. It ends thus:
of my journalism teacher is Dr. Death.
If we’re ever in battle we will remember
him fondly, his rules of military photography:
Never take pictures of a soldier smoking.
Sends the wrong message. And we get it,
we really do.
We expect the rule to be something like “Never take pictures of a dead soldier”‚ but she doesn’t say that. Death, if you’re in boot camp, must be one of those unsayable things—to say it might be a sort of hex. She comes close to the unsayable here, since “smoking” reminds us of “to smoke” as a euphemism for “to kill.” And we do get it, we really do, without having to be told.
This holding back from the unsayable is a variety of restraint. Like Bishop, Skolfield avoids the maudlin or the sentimental, quietly pointing to what is painful and dark. An excellent example is Skolfield’s poem “Mayday.” The poem begins simply enough, with an officer explaining the rudiments of signaling SOS: “Three taps of metal on metal.” Then, as with “Art Project: Earth,” Skolfield’s imagination takes over, and she depicts an undefined “you” and what “you” might do to signal SOS (“ammunition case / against canteen, canteen to rations kit, / rations kit to bayonet”). But then the poem turns; a priest appears:
maybe she’s Catholic, she might be
Catholic, yes, you distinctly remember
that conversation and how you brought up
the priest pedophile thing. And wish
for time to say sorry one, two, three,
your tiring arms and the longer and longer
pauses one, two, three, and now
your signal sounds like metal swinging at air.
There’s no confession here; rather we have the unsayable—the violation by a priest of a child—and the sheer terror and helplessness of that child signaling, calling SOS and failing.
Once you’re signaling SOS, there are only two things that can happen: you’re found or you’re lost. The earth can continue hanging by its tenuous thread, or it can be lost in space. Poems throughout this collection focus on loss of one kind and another, the loss of the last of a species, the loss of hair and of a mattress tied to the roof, a mother. Other poems, like “Mayday,” point to impending loss. One poem, “Lost Mountain,” riffs on losing “entire geographical features.” Here Skolfield tips her hat to Bishop who wrote, in “One Art,” “I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.” “Lost Mountain” ends
Then the volcano, which you wouldn’t think
I could lose, what with the accompanying
poisonous gas, molten lava, etc.,
but I have a knack for this, I am forever losing
sunglasses too, how my husband hates that,
since I like the expensive polarized type.
The delta, the river system, the Continental Divide.
The little desert and then the bigger one.
The worried looks on the children’s faces
as if I had misplaced the whole world
and lost something that was really theirs.
Skolfield suggests that we have an obligation to protect from loss the things of this world, if not for ourselves, then for our children. We may be masters of losing, but, as Bishop observes, losing can also mean disaster.
The title poem, “Frost in the Low Areas,” concludes the collection. The speaker and her husband frantically pick herbs before frost arrives. They are two “towering hearts” who rush into the tenuous world to save one small loss from occurring.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of three books of poetry, Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011, a Minnesota Book Award finalist), and Cloves & Honey (2012). She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.