Frost in the Low Areas, by Karen Skolfield

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Frost in the Low Areas reads like a delightful conversation with someone who is so intelligent and perceptive that you don’t realize the profundity of it until she has dropped you off. Then, you find yourself noticing old fans, thinking about the proper way to hold a hand, and wondering whether a touch was a “tousle” or a “caress.” Spinning under the spell of Karen Skolfield’s voice, the world suddenly seems strange and inviting despite, or maybe because of, its imperfections. Hers is a memorable voice. It is the voice of the interviewer, not the interrogator. It doesn’t strain. It doesn’t waver. It’s always convincing. The poems in this collection are maps for meandering. They don’t offer direction, but they show us where we are.

Many of the poems in Frost in the Low Areas are playful, but they don’t participate in the sterile word games that one sometimes finds in contemporary poetry. Skolfield juggles the things of this world until stars, fossils, pineapples, advertisements, and “(b)irds too yellow to be doves” jigsaw into pieces of a verdant puzzle. In “How to Locate Water on a Deserted Island,” she writes:

Here shade
has a brand new meaning. An art form
and our bodies bend to fit in the shapes
laid out for us. Rest for a moment my love,
my comma in the dark. The air around us
explodes in plumage. Watch where the birds go.

In a place like this, when someone hands a woman a star, she “give(s) a tickle, blow(s) on it, / sing(s) a little song, all (her) tricks,” and it “perks up, then settles into (her), like it belongs.” The speaker of “Homunculus” fantasizes about putting “little people everywhere.” She says, “(T)hey’do all / the things I couldn’t, they’d be kinder / and better, they’d have time to pet / all the good dogs, plant more flowers.” The way “that everything in the universe resembles / everything else, in that interconnected way” opens the field of play in these poems, yet this world “hangs by a thread.” And as Skolfield writes in “Skeleton Key,” “although the key unlocks / it also binds together.”

Paradoxically, Skolfield’s playful tone grants access to the seriousness that lingers below the everyday. She’s willing to “dig to bedrock, to the water beneath, to the fossil layer, the imprints of ferns.” The speaker of “Disposal” says:

I would devote my life, pass through
the colored bands, the place where oil
is made, until the ground grew warm
and when I looked up, the top of the hole
would look like a distant, futile star.

Throughout the collection, Skolfield burrows into personal experience and several scenarios, but as she descends into these spaces, she also expands them. In “Power Outage: 3 p.m., College of Engineering,” a blackout leads to a conversation between the speaker and an engineer about “why lights go on and off” that ends:

Grounded, my friend says, means any object connected
to the earth. He says: Someone is dancing around
the master switch. He says: Knowledge is power.
Arms outstretched, we mince forward, where everything
is ordinary and people wander, wide-eyed, out of the gloom.

These lines suggest that human beings generally lack knowledge and, therefore, power. We sort of constantly wander “wide-eyed, out of the gloom.” In “Checking that the Mattress Is Still Strapped to the Car,” the speaker says, “Once a person of your gender / rubbed a hand through your hair and you liked it,” which leads to the revelation that “scalp” is “an entirely unsexy word.” By the end of the poem, when the speaker says, “Sometimes, you reach up to see it’s still there,” “it” seems to refer to both the mattress mentioned in the title and the hair. In “The Sound under the Car Can’t Be Good,” Skolfield describes the sound of a “wad of plastic bags melted to the exhaust” as “a dozen tiny hands / slapping the undercarriage,” the hands of “children / wanting to be noticed. Someone else’s children.” As the driver approaches the affluently named “Cherry Hill Golf Course,” she has managed to ignore the sound until it has nearly disappeared, becoming “palms that will bruise the next day, / a reminder of a woman trying not to hear.” This ending is particularly striking because the deadpan of the title and the rather humorous and relatable scenario of minor car trouble leave the reader vulnerable. Skolfield reminds us that humor and horror often live on the same street.

In some of the poems, an abrupt sound transforms an entire scene. “Scattering” begins:

A pan from the drying rack, the hearty slip.
Shattered to four rooms—how can that be?—
wings of glass, briefly airborne, the sound
of the whole morning changed.

At the end of the poem, “the world is covered in glass.” In “In the Hour When the Rocks Sleep,” “the barn owl screams a woman’s scream,” waking a couple. In response to this scream, “the skin’s nerves / tangled on the skin, in shock, the blankets snarled / and the blockade of ordinary things, the transformation / of dressers and rug edges.” Although Skolfield never screams in Frost in the Low Areas, her poems have a similar transformative effect, leaving us “surprised … at each unveiling.”

Frost in the Low Areas, by Karen Skolfield. Clarksville, Tennessee: Zone 3 Press. 96 pages. $14.00, paper.

Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. His poems have appeared in several journals, including CaketrainDouble RoomThe FiddlebackPhantom Limb, and Spectrum, and his reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins CriticRain Taxi, and other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he teaches English.

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