Thursday, January 12, 2017

Poem366: FROST IN THE LOW AREAS by Karen Skolfield

I am quite smitten with today’s Poem366 selection.

Picture me in my natural state—in a house full of books, poetry collections piled by my chair, by my bed, by the front door where I open the mail, on my shelves, in my basement … and at least four dozen electronic copies waiting for my attention in my e-mail.

I choose each day’s collection pretty randomly, and I freely confess that I picked tonight’s collection solely because I wanted to read poems by someone named Karen. I’m not sure if I’ve ever met or read a bad Karen, and I can’t think of a Karen on Earth I don’t like.  I’m partial. So sue me. Go, team!

The Karen du jour is Karen Skolfield, whose 2013 collection Frost in the Low Areas captured the Zone 3 Press First Book Award in Poetry.

It’s a book that deserves a prize, if you ask me. There is just so much life in this book—so many people and things; such astute observations; such fresh writing and such a rich collection of it. I thoroughly enjoyed the variety and depth of feeling Skolfield presents.

The book does not have a tight focus, and that’s one reason it suited my own kind of restless mind tonight. I have enjoyed collections with very rigid themes, but I was not in the spirit for one of those today. The poems are tremendously varied in subject, tone, rhetoric, and style, but the book still works as a unit. I think it’s because Skolfield’s singular consciousness knows what it’s about, and even in its uncertainty about the world, there is a sameness to the intelligence behind the work.

Maybe the best way to introduce Skolfield’s debut collection is to offer a small tour through some of her subjects. I’m partial to the poem “Homunculus,” where she talks about “a little boy / wrapped up in another body.” She writes about how it would be if she were in charge:

                                           If someone
hadn’t already thought of it, I’d invent
the homunculus. I’d put little people everywhere:
not just in sperm, but wood glue, the popcorn
pieces in the couch, the gills of fish, orzo,
pearlescent teeth, navy beans, and of course,
teardrops. Every teardrop would have a little
person, and when the tear splashed down
the person would be free. …

Skolfield’s homunculus parade, complete with tiny signs and shouts “like the lazed bussing of bees,” is not to be missed.

Just after “Homunculus” comes “Art Project: Earth,” where Skolfield considers the planet she makes from papier-mâché laid over a balloon and painted blue and gray and green.

                                                   What must
the people of this planet think, the ground
knobby and dry, the oceans blue powder,
the farmland stiff and carefully maintained.
Sometimes they spin one direction,
then back again. How coyotes howl.
How the people learn to love, regardless.
The majesty of their own towering hearts.

A link does present itself—tiny people in teardrops, tiny creatures on this new Earth. The poet’s view telescopes in this book, sometimes studying a subject through a microscope (and the cover image is a microscopic view of grass) and sometimes zooming out and going wider.

The book covers so much territory that even limbs blackened with frostbite are not beyond her interest and attention. The poem “Purga” explores—unexpectedly beautifully—how frostbite happens:

                        Our bodies start at the edges,
go room to room, shutting out lights.
Frost damage leaves the skin black,
a sign the body has let go. Mummy bag
over the head. Baffling, the warmth
at the core. Bring the foot back in.
Let it think the worst is over.

I’m reminded here of when I very nearly got frostbite once. I was in Montana and it was springtime, and I was wearing canvas sneakers, but when I drove to the top of a mountain, I encountered snow—and, in fact, got stuck in it. I spent hours pushing the car, and I was effectively barefoot, my shoes soaked. I don’t really remember the cold, but I very clearly remember the impossible pain as I held them under the car heater to warm up. When you’ve experienced that, you really get where Skolfield is going with that ominous last line.

Strangely, the book is from 2013, but aspects of it seem tailor made for 2017, including a poem in praise of the Obamas, and poems that deal with Skolfield’s military history. She offers a keen understanding of the military. Perhaps it’s our current uncertainty, but I feel very drawn to Skolfield’s understanding. I read the book in a sitting because her voice was just want I wanted to hear right now, even though the poet was frank and did not pull punches.

I’ll part with a gripping set of lines from “Rumors of Her Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”:

                                                      What war can do.
Shells, mortar rounds, the terror of Claymore mines—

they’re filled with old screws and nuts, metal scraps
twisting through bodies until they embed deeply
into trees, even rocks. Someone angry invented

these, someone who lived in a junkyard.

An interview with Karen Skolfield …

What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?

A writer—isn’t that boring? I had no imagination. My mom sewed little books for me which I would write stories in and illustrate (“illustrate” being the kind word for “exhibit zero artistic talent”). I was in love with dinosaurs, so I used them as characters—I remember writing a story in which they played baseball and another in which they played “spy” and wrote notes to each other in code. I’m pretty sure I lifted the story lines from Encyclopedia Brown books. Later, I wanted to be a teacher. Both those things came true. But in many ways, I wish I’d considered other possibilities. I’ve got a surprisingly logical, science-y brain, and though it’s fun to use this with language, I can also envision a pretty happy life in which I mess around with mice DNA.

What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.

I had an obvious answer for this: homunculus, the title of the second poem in this collection, for its sound and weirdness and playfulness. Wanting to give your question the attention it deserved, though, I scanned my book for other words I love: talus and tarsals, vestigial, wriggling, twiggish, ellipses, improbable, weft, undulation, shagbark, scarleting, camouflage, Spinosaurus. Ultimately, I’m a writer because I love words more than mice DNA, I suppose, though I did manage to hold onto my infatuation with dinosaurs.

Describe your worst poetic habit.

So many to choose from! If you mean worst writing habit, it’s that I don’t do enough of it, though I’ve had to learn to forgive myself—with two kids, work, and a life, writing isn’t always the priority. Sometimes that makes me sad; sometimes I shuffle my schedule to make writing time happen. If by "poetic habit” you mean “Oh god, look at what the poet is doing,” it’s that I often drive by exits and turns because my brain is busy playing with words or otherwise too occupied to pay attention to my destination. My kids have gotten used to this: “Mom, didn’t you drive by the grocery store?” They’re gentle in their corrections, for which I’m grateful. 

It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.

This was enormously fun to think about. I’d love to see an anthology of desert poems. Does such a thing exist? I love the desert—my family goes every couple of years—and the Sonoran desert is one of my favorite environments in the world. An anthology of snow and ice. Insects. Science. Clutter, chaos, and entropy. The elements. National parks. DNA—now wouldn’t that be amazing? An anthology of frustration. An anthology of little-known body parts. 

I love themed anthologies! Sundress Publications has put out great ones: on mermaids, on the politics of identity, on women and place. Recent anthologies I’ve read, have on my to-read list, and/or been published in include anthologies about inventions and inventors (Meerkat Press), dolls (Terrapin Books), Upper Rubber Boot Book’s anthology of “derring-do, explosions, and blunt force trauma,” the apocalypse (also URB), motherhood (Sage Hill Press), bras and breasts (Les Femmes Folles Books), and more. I just spotted a submission call for “Unrequited: An Anthology of Love Poems about Inanimate Objects.” Is that not fantastic? Who’s not attached to their keychain, a favorite pen, certain kitchen utensils? 

In the spirit of writing appreciations, are there any books of poetry you’ve read recently that you appreciate?

So many! A few from my desk: Luis Omar Salinas’s elegy for desire, with a voice so clear and distinct I feel like we’re having a conversation. Jill McDonough’s Where You Live, which has a studied casualness that I so admire. And just arrived in the mail today, Susan Schultz’s Memory Cards: Thomas Traherne Series, a lovely book of prose poems that manages to stitch together the plight of Hawaii’s homeless, a cat’s death, the dying of bees, snippets of childhood and history and current events. 

Karen Skolfield’s book Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry. She's received fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, New England Public Radio, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Ucross Foundation, Split This Rock, Hedgebrook, and Vermont Studio Center. Skolfield is an Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Editor's note: This is the Jan. 12 installment of Poem366 (#12 out of 366 entries this year). If you are a poet or publisher who would like for me to consider a title, I am happy to accept physical copies (printouts are fine) of recent books. At this time I'm considering only full-length collections published by established presses (no self-published work). Feel free to mail a copy to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804.

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