Karen Skolfield is an optimist without being a Pollyanna, a cynic without being a misanthrope. Her narrative poems have the tone of actual conversation; we feel as if we’re listening to a good friend tell us something she’s never before revealed about herself. In Frost in the Low Areas, Skolfield’s remarkable first collection, her poems tackle such issues as motherhood, marriage, death, and what it means to be the product of a dysfunctional family.
The optimist in Skolfield doesn’t want to dwell too long on negative details. In “Ode to a Fan,” for example, the speaker makes a passing comment about her father’s abuse. She confesses to stealing his favorite fan after he kicks her out, her dad “telling me I was no longer welcome there / how he hated my life, maybe because / I’d never slept with him.” She quickly changes the subject, attempting to divert our attention. “But this,” she says, “is about the fan, the green fan / that I hid under blankets in the back / of my lover’s gigantic truck.” Later in the poem, she again mentions a trauma, when she says, “I didn’t speak to my family for a long time / until the cancer thing,” and again she refuses to dwell on this piece of information. We don’t mind not learning more about the cancer thing, though. The story she tells us is amusing, and we enjoy the bit of revenge she has on her father, as she pretends to have no idea about the fan’s whereabouts. Her voice is clear and honest and her wit is sharp. “I like to think I’m contributing to his nightmares,” she tells us, and we like to think so, too.
This tactic of diverting her audience is even more apparent in “Rumors of Her Death have been Greatly Exaggerated,” when offhand she mentions death to her young children. “Mistake one: driving by two cemeteries when the kids / are tired,” she says. “Mistake two: saying only some people get / buried. Where are the others, my son asks.” She then finds herself trying to sidetrack them with thoughts of Christmas, snow, and stray dogs, though her kids are now stuck in their worry about their parents dying. Her children, unlike her readers, refuse to be distracted by her artful diversions.
Skolfield’s poems are steeped in strange and lovely metaphors, particularly when discussing motherhood. In the opening poem “Where Babies Come From,” for example, she writes,
I thought they were handing me a baby,
but it’s a star in my arms, a very small one,
just born. Whoever said they twinkle has never
held one. It’s blue and not very warm,
and though I don’t know a thing about stars,
I start to worry. I give a tickle, blow on it,
sing a little song, all my tricks. The star
perks up, then settles into me, like it belongs.
In “Second House, Careful in the Drive,” she says, “It seems as if everyone but me was born / knowing to hold a child by the wrist instead / of their small, slippery fingers. The distance / from any sidewalk to the whir of cars is exactly one / Emily long.” Those of us who are mothers recognize in these poems the fear that we are always a little inadequate for the job.
Karen Skolfield’s ease with narrative and extended metaphor occasionally brings to mind the poet Elizabeth Bishop. * In “Lost Mountain,” for example, Skolfield writes, “I hate when I misplace entire geographical features.” She continues,
Next the savannah, or really just a portion
of the savannah, I don’t want my muddle-
headedness out of proportion, yes it was large
enough for two lion prides and their prey,
but it wasn’t the whole thing. Slipped behind
the couch, as savannahs sometimes do,
and it wasn’t until the vultures started circling
that I knew, and what a shock then to find
the savannah, which honestly no one had missed,
instead of the ice cap, which we talked about
These lines recall Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” in which the poet states, “I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.” Of course, Bishop isn’t overly concerned about losing these places. Skolfield’s slightly defensive tone – “The salt flat was not my fault” – betrays her sense of guilt over what she’s lost.
Elizabeth Bishop once said, “If after I read a poem the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so I’m sure it’s a good one.” The world still looks like much of Karen Skolfield’s Frost in the Low Areas. She reminds us in “Other People Fantasize about Big Boats,” that whatever our dysfunctions and whomever we’ve lost, family is like paper stapled together, “attached firmly, forever, to each other.”
More about this poet:
Karen Skolfield’s book Frost in the Low Areas (2013) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry and the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press, and is a Massachusetts “Must Read” selection for 2014. She is a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council fellow and winner of the 2014 Split This Rock poetry prize. Skolfield is the poetry editor for Amherst Live and a contributing editor at the literary magazines Tupelo Quarterly and Stirring. She teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts. Find her online at http://www.karenskolfield.blogspot.com/.
* I never read other reviews of the books I write about for my blog, because I want to draft reviews free from other people’s opinions. After writing this review, however, I stumbled upon this article about Elizabeth Bishop’s influence on Karen Skolfield’s book. Athena Kierkegard sees Elizabeth Bishop as “a guiding spirit behind” Frost in the Low Areas.