Back in early 2014, Quaint was honored to have the privilege of publishing two of Karen Skolfield’s poems, Ex-Wife as Hunting Cabin, and Ex-Wife as Farmer’s Market. Imagine our delight when we learned that Skolfield had recently published a book of poems, Frost in the Low Areas (available from Zone 3 Press).
The book, which received the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry, is Massachusetts native Skolfield’s first, and Skolfield has packed one hell of a punch into its 77 pages. The collection is extremely diverse in subject matter: Skolfield’s poems cycle through themes of family, nature and the pastoral, childhood innocence lost and regained, and the clinical dissociation of war and violence (Skolfield worked as a military photojournalist for a number of years). Yet the book never feels chaotic or scattered: Frost in the Low Areas is unified by the common thread of what it means to be a woman–the strength and vulnerability it takes to negotiate the world as a lover, a parent, a soldier, a child, and ultimately a survivor.
What I admired most about the poems in Frost in the Low Areas was Skolfield’s ability to evoke emotion without being overly sentimental. Poems like “Rumors of Her Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” and “As it Turns Out” deal with potent themes such as motherhood and death, but there’s no melodrama here, no hysteria—the speaker is frank, detailing the very real way in which we confront loss, as adults and as children: with fear, with sadness, with distraction (“cooked a bunch of meals./Separated the lights from the darks./Vacuumed.”) The emotional resonance of these poems hits home precisely because Skolfield avoids sentiment, shooting instead for the kind of confessional realism that those who have experienced loss will recognize immediately as truth.
do you want your ashes, he says, where is it that
you love. He’s crying, he’s tapping my shoulder,
I’m exclaiming over a stray dog and do you think
we’ll get more snow, wouldn’t you love more snow
Walker; he’s saying when is Daddy going to die,
don’t die before me; I have both hands on the wheel”
Many of the poems also deal with trauma and abuse, the secrets families keep behind closed doors and what happens when those secrets are allowed to fester. Perhaps the most powerful poem in the book, for me, was “Ode to the Fan,” in which Skolfield frames the narrative of a strained (if not abusive) relationship between father and daughter through “the famous Skolfield fan,” a relic the speaker purloins from her parents’ house the night she is kicked out. Once again, Skolfield elegantly addresses a traumatic subject without resorting to crude reenactment, skirting the truth in a way that will be familiar to victims of abuse. The strength of poems like “Ode to the Fan,” (and “Cherries,” another poem that deals with the speaker’s relationship with her father) is the poet’s use of everyday items, ordinary household objects that plunge her into memory, and from memory into the remembrance of trauma.
But despite the darkness in Skolfield’s poems, there is a softness, too—moments of quiet reflection, memories evoked usually by a contemplation of nature, as in “Birds Unloved,” where the speaker conflates herself with the grackles she witnesses in migration. “Having Secretly Given Each Other the Titles of Birds,” too, collapses bird-identity and human-identity in a poem that delicately addresses the nature of love, of what it means to be singularly devoted to someone. This negotiation of the natural world and man-made world is a concern that Skolfield carries through her book, where poems about parking lots and plastic surgery meet poems about dinosaurs and seasonal change. This tension between pastoral and urban speaks to the kind of uncertainty we feel within ourselves, as we try to make sense of the world around us, of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.
In Frost in the Low Areas, Skolfield has wrought a compelling, touching first book–a raw, lyrical examination of humanity.
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine, and an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans, where she works also as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work has been published in Curbside Splendor, Westerly, Cordite, and Going Down Swinging, and has been shortlisted for several awards including the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. She can be found online atkiagroom.com, and tweets @whodreamedit.