Frost in the Low Areas. Karen Skolfield. Zone 3 Press, Austin Peay State University, October 2013. $14.00.
Review by Katherine Hoerth.
Jericho Brown once said that good poetry is “a mixture of ironic and ecstatic.” Countless contemporary poets have struggled to find a pitch-perfect voice that avoids sentimentality (one of today’s deadliest of sins in the poetry world) and coldness with such distance and disaffection that no reader will be able to relate. Karen Skolfield’s latest collection, Frost in the Low Areas, proves that both ends of the spectrum can and do coexist in verse, and the result is a voice to which I can’t help but pay attention. The collection won the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press and the 2014 PEN New England award in poetry.
Many of the poems draw from the speaker’s everyday life as a mother, wife, former soldier, and journalist turned teacher. They’re compelling, colorful, and relatable. We’re made privy to domestic moments, from picking up the shards of glass from a dropped pan, the “chaos of dogs and vacuum cleaner” and carrying “the kids to high places / as if the shards were mice,” to the speaker’s fantasies about going back to work after the birth of her child, with her “shiny long desk,” “a yellow stapler worn smooth,” and returning after a long day, “home in time / for the kids to get off the bus,” to an almost ethereal image of a daughter, Emily, chalk-drawing on the sidewalk “rainbow to rainbow as if the earth might run / out of rainbows and that thick / belt of light.” There’s sincerity, honesty, that shines through these seemingly small, simple moments.
The slightly darker “Ode to the Fan,” with its deft honesty about a familial drama (explored through the symbol of an old green fan, beloved by the speaker’s father), could have easily dipped into the sentimental. But the poem opens up, putting the reader directly into the tension, describing the fan as “the only thing smuggled” from the speaker’s parents’ house:
Square, heavy, a motor my age, 19, my dad
telling me I was no longer welcome there,
how he hated my life, maybe because
I wouldn’t sleep with him.
Here Skolfield toys with that line between sincerity and sentimentality. There’s a real tension, and it’s a little risky. But, the rest of the poem continues, in a sense, picking up the pieces, re-establishing that balance: “But this / is about the fan, the green fan / that I hid under blankets.” The fan becomes a symbol for the father/daughter relationship, the unresolved conflict. The speaker “painted / the fan raspberry, a ridiculous color,” and throughout the years, she hides it from her father, though he continually asks about it over the phone or when she stops by his home – “we would start every visit lying to each other.” The speaker fantasizes about the pain the fan’s (and undoubtedly, her own) absence brings her father:
I like to think it pains him, the idea
of his fan with me, how I might neglect it,
the gathering of rust, the mice delighting in the cord.
Or worse: that I threw it away.
Or even worse: How it brings me pleasure.
While the subject matter lends itself to more sentimental treatment, Skolfield’s use of metaphor offers a note of ironic distance that ultimately makes the poem successful.
Other pieces do the opposite—making greater use of irony with mere hints of the sentimental. “Or Maybe it was the Name of a Rock Band” depicts the speaker stumbling on a spray-painted message, “’We found a dead man,’” considering what it means, “the legs frozen / at the wrong angle … a set of eyes, unblinking… a face gray-shaded,” and at the end of the poem, with a certain disaffected jadedness, she “steps right over those words.” “Lost Mountain” is so wry it’s humorous; the poem opens with “I hate it when I misplace entire geographical features” and goes on to describe a savannah that “slipped behind / the couch, as savannahs sometimes do,” a lost volcano, compared to a lost pair of sunglasses— “the expensive polarized type” of course—and finally, the speaker loses the earth’s deserts. The poem closes particularly powerfully, adding a touch of sincerity to a poem that would otherwise be silly:
The worried looks on the children’s faces
as if I had misplaced the whole world
and lost something that was really theirs.
The collection’s strongest poems take a balanced approach, using both ecstatic and ironic, often in the same image and line. The eponymous poem “Frost in the Low Areas” is a good example of this. Written in the voice of a wife, the poem opens with “The health survey said / he would live to 76 and I, 86.” A scene unfolds of the couple together, making pesto, coldly discussing how life would be after the husband’s death: “Ten years / to yourself. No one stealing / the sheets or the last of the ham.” The tone shifts, though, with the deft break of stanza: “this is how we joke / with each other, hah ha, and then // we kiss.” The poem continues, mixing both sentiments, and closes with a powerful image:
a frost the herbs
won’t survive. Twilight
we worked the rows,
frantic, our gentleness gone.
Behind us, nothing but stems
and their faint heat. Before us,
the first crisp morning.
Here, I can’t help but think of the speaker and her husband, frantically harvesting what’s left of their lives together, savoring the moments like the flavors in pesto. What emerges is a voice so authentic, clear, and wholly contemporary that it draws readers in. These poems are a joy to read—at once serious and silly, personal and universal, and, of course, ironic and ecstatic.
Katherine Hoerth is the author of a poetry collection, The Garden Uprooted (Slough Press, 2012). Her work has been published in journals such as Pleiades, Rattle, and Front Porch. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas Pan American. Visit her online here.