Review of Karen Skolfield's Frost in the Low Areas
A popular meme on the internet lately posits that “we are all made of stars.” Karen Skolfield’s award winning poetry collection, Frost in the Low Areas, seemingly responds to that notion by examining the very stuff that the universe is really made of, and examines our place within it. If we are stardust, Skolfield seems to ask, then what does it mean to be a fragment of something once so brilliant and whole? Throughout the collection the speaker implies these questions, and freely exposes all of her curiosities, her fears, her speculations, opening the door for readers to do the same.
Frost in the Low Areas begins with an epigraph by Neitzshe that creates an introspective tone for the entire collection: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” The first poem, “Where Babies Come From,” responds directly to the epigraph; the speaker is handed an infant and thus prompted to reflect on her connection to the child, if any, and chaos theory – for the child quickly becomes metaphor for a twinkling blue star (or vice versa). In this way, the poems birth themselves – quickly sliding from poignant to humorous and back again. For example, in the same poem, while the speaker is caught in a profound philosophical reflection on interconnectedness, the guests at the same party are casually eating Brie.
Though often humorous, the narrator doesn’t come off as purposefully witty, but more akin to a wry, unflinching observer who is equally willing to critique and laugh at herself as the world around her. In “Blackblast Area Clear,” the teenaged speaker (new to the armed forces) recalls shooting an antitank weapon for the first time in a conversation with her current husband, who appears throughout the collection: “’Did you hit any helicopters?’ Dennis asks / ‘Don’t be silly,’ I say. ‘They don’t let you / shoot helicopters.’ But of course, they do.” This reflection is both internal and external – on the state of society, on human nature, but more often than not the mirror remains inward, the ‘I’ remains prominent throughout and takes full responsibility for the sentiments implied in the poems. This gives readers a choice to align with the view or not, rather than forcing or tricking it upon us.
For example, in “$99 Botox at Urgent Care Clinic, Los Angeles” the speaker simultaneously critiques the materialistic LA culture as well as her own curious fascination with it. By using details from her own life, presumably lived through a lens that appreciates nature over consumerism, Skolfield presents a view of ‘Hollywood culture’ that many readers might find kinship with, but states it without imposition. “I own rain boots, a snow shovel, / backwoods skis. I’m forty, I’m curious / who wouldn’t be,” she writes. Later, in “Checking That the Mattress Is Still Strapped to the Car,” Skolfield shifts to 2nd person point of view and invites readers on a cross country journey. Along the way, the side mirrors of the car become the lens through which she critiques a faltering sense of identity that seems very Western in nature:
There’s a road rick-racked in front,
some big states beyond. There’s a mattress
on your car. There’s your hair, beneath it.
Sometimes, you reach up to see it’s still there.
Road trips, cosmetic surgery, the literal Westward migration – all of these are artificial quests that are very American in their essence. And in both poems, Skolfield skillfully employs descriptive observation in lieu of explicit critique to invite readers to question our own views of this culture. Any of us could be the student moving cross-country to a new life, a middle aged consumer enthralled by the promises of anti-aging mechanisms, or someone who seeks a simple, “off the grid” life, and isn’t quite sure if any of these ideals are possible.
From the superficial to the deep mysteries of the cosmos, the speaker of these poems checks and double-checks, examines and re-examines, all while picking cherries, watching her daughter play in the driveway, or lying on top of graves wondering what is ‘lucky’ enough to become fossilized, a permanent part of the record: “We say petrifaction / but what we mean is bone reinventing itself, / reverse ossification, the body’s last ditch to survive.” The poem “Fossils: Blount County” recalls the baby held in the first poem (“Where Babies Come From”) and examines the nature of flesh from a different, deeper perspective than the one in LA. Eventually, the speaker’s voice became my own angel or devil on my shoulder, despite the personal tone – for who among us hasn’t pondered our own mortality writ on a billboard or a gravestone or the scenes of war on the TV?
The perspectives, though clearly Skolfield’s, could belong to any primate looking in a mirror: fallible, curious, mimics at best of the mysterious natural processes unfolding every day around us. In the final, title poem, we are left with a kitchen conversation, between the speaker and her husband, Dennis. Left with a scene stripped down of romanticism, in which the two jokingly discuss their mortality while making pesto, because the basil had to be harvested before the overnight frost. In this way, I think it’s safe to say that Skolfield’s first book is a successful collection of harvested moments, from reflections on the far distant past to possible visions of the future. In the penultimate poem, “Rock Hall Harbor, Pencil and Acrylic, Unfinished,” a painting moves from attic to attic, unhung, and for me, becomes reminiscent of the poems themselves, which all acknowledge on some level the impermanence of a human’s imprint on the Earth. “The painting has survived every move,” she writes, “every awkward swaddling, the time / in all those attics and how surprised I am / at each unveiling, finding something still undone.”
Amy Clark is the author of Remnants of the Disappeared (Red Orchid Press 2014), and a graduate of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. She has published poetry in various journals such as Mid-American Review and Cimarron Review, and served as poetry editor of Flyway: A Journal of Writing and Environment. Amy teaches first year writing and science writing at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.