Frost in the Low Areas
Zone 3 Press, 2013
96 pp. $14.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Elias Simpson
Karen Skolfield loves stapling: “Papers attached firmly, forever, to each other.” In her book, Frost in the Low Areas, we see her busily at work. “Labels, manila folders. / A whole way of organizing with colors.” The poems begin knowing that the world is too much to fit into them—but why not have a bite anyway? The Romans thought the stomach was the “heart,” the grand metaphor for love and feeling. Skolfield’s work, reminiscent of Andrea Cohen (Kentucky Derby), does too. There’s a gut-wrenching drive for resolve and an imminent hunger for more. The poems are many things. They are sly, playful, somewhat sneaky. Their goal is to staple word to meaning, experience to fact, everything in the correctly colored folder before the storm of life blasts in again through that window and we are left in a state of disarray.
In some sense, poetry is always a betrayal against life and its organic chaos. The anarchist, the rebel, the stubborn head—these are the personas of her book that romantically and admirably reckon with the world. For Skolfield, personal and introspective, this chaotic force is inextricably inside of the body. A mother who passes, an incestuous father, a new child—this is material for the stomach-heart, not the ego or the intellect. The material of these poems is a human experience of bewilderment and accepting—connecting and making. What resonates most are the family members so strongly present in the poems: her parents collecting cherries, a new house, the son learning language.
While the poems based on conceits are admirably crafted, I will focus on the more effortless poems, poems more inhabited by people than by metaphors (though the metaphors are still potent), where I find evidence of a work larger than what’s on the page, a soul wiser than the words.
In “Second House, Careful in the Drive,” there’s plenty of material in a landscape and an ample awareness of the timeline of habitation, of passing things on. It is a graceful poem, leaving challenges and ideas behind for the next line, coming confidently to its vulnerable conclusion. The instruction to be “careful in the drive” is a telling title. The poem is made with bricks of care and endearing flaws, the one complimenting the other. The reader is allowed in to forgive. “It seems as if everyone but me was born / knowing to hold a child by the wrist instead / of their small, slippery fingers.” Like the child learning “‘flick’ and ‘Frisbee,’” the poet also confesses “There’s so much to know. / Borax to keep out the ants. / When to buy corn. How to hold a hammer low.”
These efforts of educating and caring are contrasted with risks and dangers. “Emily can’t seem to paint fast enough, / rainbow to rainbow as if the earth might run / out of rainbows…” The voice is protective, too: “The distance from any sidewalk to the whir of cars is exactly one Emily long.” “The saw with the twist of orange ribbon.” Ultimately the reader is told what is already clear: “The yard invites a certain amount / of nakedness.” This mythic beauty carries the poem, its poet and the poet’s concerns imbued with purpose and intent.
“Cherries” paints a different yard with the speaker in the role of daughter, not mother. The balance between comfort and caution is inverted, too. It is a darkness that intrigues the reader and brings her in. “She knew, /she must have known, that he / had raped at least one niece, / granddaughters…” Skolfield’s usual devices take a backseat to the story and characters in this poem, but metaphor has a powerful presence in the final line—a powerful reference that bears the weight of human weakness and pain. “I do not think I was ever caught. / Or if I was, I’m sure she looked the other way.”
A wide range of poetic moves makes “Chiromancy” work. There’s the playful metaphor, riffing off the central conceit of the title. The voice of the speaker is clear and excited: “I was cutting an avocado / at a campsite in Caliornia, which wouldn’t / be exciting except the avocados there cost / 25 cents.” As in the other poems, we have a sense of carelessness and whimsy mixed with danger and harm. Skolfield not only balances them but playfully merges them. “Now there’s another line to consider, / perhaps it is my Swiss Army line / or Who Taught You to Hold a Knife line.” And in the bleeding, in the stomach-thinking, the nausea—the cross-thinking—is beautiful and powerful.
Skolfield is an artist of the stapler. These disparate worlds and states of mind are stapled into one. To feel them together, in a gut-punch, feels good. Frost in the Low Areas works well with its voice and its characters. Sometimes the book comes upon a very real place, and it does it without straining. The love and the feelings are felt without doubt or question, and they drive the poems deeper than one knew they could go. Karen Skolfield has accomplished many beautiful feats in this book, sometimes in detail and sometimes by simple allusion. There’s no doubt that this minister of the stapler will continue to deliver.
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