Friday, August 30, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'Battle Dress'

Book Review: "Battle Dress" by Karen Skolfield

War poet Karen Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran, an instructor of writing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and, among other recognitions and prizes, a past runner-up in The Iowa Review's Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans.

Skolfield's first poetry collection, 2013's "Frost in the Low Areas," contains precious few mentions of life in uniform. Notable samples from that work are the plain-spoken perspective of "Backblast Area Clear" and the hilarious "Army SMART Book: On Getting Lost." In her recently published second collection "Battle Dress," however, Skolfield fires-for-effect regarding her experiences with the military, fully and explicitly delivering on the rounds she first registered in "Frost in the Low Areas." The effort pays off for readers of both military and civilian backgrounds, accessibly and creatively exploring what it means to be soldier, and to be a woman at war.

Like the enlisted public affairs troop she once was, Skolfield takes aim at war with a photographer's eye for detail, a wicked sense of wordplay, and a soldierly love of others—even our younger selves—that can only be found in having shared the same foxhole. Her voice ranges from the mythic to the pastoral, from uncoded plain-text to battle-buddy confidential.

The 82-page book comprises 46 poems, presented across four untitled sections. Those who closely watch the "veterans-lit" space should recognize her byline: Skolfield has published widely; 41 of the poems have first appeared in literary journals.

The cover is a dusky, charcoal-and-buff vignette of clouds and dunes, which elegantly evokes one of Skolfield's longer works within, a dreamy mini-collection titled "Soldier Rendered as All Five Types of Sand Dunes." Rather than dwell long in such ethereal terrain, however, Skolfield is at her most sublime when she gets down and dirty.

In "Grenade: Origin, OFr. pomme-grenate," for example, Skolfield builds toward an epic momentum and a distinctively female view of the battlefield. As such, in this reviewer's opinion, it more than deserves to be read alongside Brian Turner's seminal 21st century war poem, "Here, Bullet."
Not as counterpoint, but as companion. One can imagine generating whole workshops from comparing and contrasting the two.

Turner's celebrated poem, after all, is full of the expected viscera and violence of combat, expertly placed in the body and mind of a soldier. The brutality is penetrative. Skolfield's poem likewise carves for readers a resonant space within which to experience a soldier's body and mind. Where Turner starts with a bullet, Skolfield throws a grenade. The results are no less explosive, or devastating.
[…] In mythology, every seed a month
of hell for the mother, the daughter,
her daughter's daughters
along the generations. In every war,
the same recognizable hunger.
Fruit of the dead, from living to not living,
also fruit of fertility, from one to many,
the names of the dead ripening.
How the arm extends, the palm opens,
the red pulp within, the perfect arc.
What is sown cannot be called back.
We say bearing fruit and it is borne.
Skolfield's "Grenade" is further enriched by an adjacent poem "The Throwing Gap". Winner of a 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize from The Missouri Review, the poem illuminates Basic Training gender politics in a more journalistic mode. Skolfield writes:
/ […] We willed
our arms to be boys, our shoulders
brutal and male, we thought of torsos
and hands that had beaten or punched
or strangled or slapped or headlocked
women that were us or looked
like us and we wanted that strength.[…]

[…] Let us throw these grenades so far
that the drill sergeant says
God, seeing hand grenades thrown
like that gives me a hard-on

and we who are now male will laugh
at the rightness of it and we will say Me too.
Skolfield unpacks words like a rucksack, extra-large, one each. One of her techniques is to title poems after dictionary entries, or to reveal words as etymological sub-munitions within poems; "grenade," "enlist", "war," and "discharge" are a few examples. Another is the practice of quoting the Army SMART Book—a predecessor to the U.S. Army's Soldier's Manual of Common Tasks. In the latter, the prompts read as fragments from a religious text, or aphorisms from some tactically proficient spiritual guru. Some favorites? "Army SMART Book: Small-arms fire may sound like mosquitos" and "Army SMART book: This Page Left Blank Intentionally."

Skolfield occasionally also engages in controlled bursts of word-creation and -association, resulting in rapid-fire images and language. These moments not only serve as opportunities for her to contextualize military experience and jargon, but to help readers understand and inhabit those concepts emotionally. In "Private, PV2, Private First Class," for example, Skolfield begins …
From the Latin privare: to deprive,
fullsleep and showers, homethoughts,
other gender except that one dance
stomping in bivvie and combat boots
most of us decked Birth Control Glasses
woooo those things worked.


Camo paint gumming up our pores,
jungle palette: vineknot, humus, treetangle.
Pvt. Morales painting cheekbones
like Escher drawings.
If viewed one way were were women;
in another darkbirds winging into light. […]
Note how effortlessly Skolfield blends military nomenclature and slang, with punchy references to pop art and cosmetics. Seemingly just as easily, she often generates poems prompted by the day's minor headlines. Instead of focusing on above-the-fold items, she teases the timeless out of smaller stories—the one that veterans would talk about. Examples include the poems "Soldiers 'Fun' Photo with Flag-Draped Coffin Sparks Outrage"; "CNN Report: Rise in Sexual Assaults, Reprisals in the Military (2016)"; and "CNN Report: Symptoms of PTSD Mimic Lyme Disease." From the latter:
/ […] Stop moping, get out more,

all in your head, you're home now,
you're safe, family to consider;
the meds, the weight gain,

the loss, the breathless, the rasp of it.
No magic bullet: tell me about it.
Sometimes a rash like a target
so loved by marksmen.
Despite everything, breath goes out
and is pulled back in.
How easy and wonderful and terrifying is Skofield's medical safety brief! In the field, soldiers are trained to watch out for ticks, which can carry disease, and to report and document any bites. Less understood and appreciated is Post-Traumatic Stress. Both Lyme disease and PTSD can be silent killers, years after the inciting exposure. Lesser hands would let the facts fall flat. Skolfield's inspired act is to not only report the connection, but to re-create it as metaphor, and to make the metaphor available to help educate others: Lyme Disease is like PTSD; PTSD is like Lyme Disease.

Remember to check your buddies.

Ideally, Skolfield's presence on the literary battlefield will help illuminate for editors, publishers, and other veterans the potential for more diverse collections of 21st century war poetry. In the meantime, her must-read "Battle Dress" delivers a keenly observed, hard-fought, and accessible perspective on military service, and making peace with oneself in a time of war. Most importantly, it provides useful images and tools with which to promote discussions between both "military" and "civilian" audiences.

Share it far and wide. Then wait for the fireworks. Because what is sown cannot be called back.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Poetry Book Review: 'murmurs at the gate'

Poetry Book Review: "murmurs at the gate" by Suzanne S. Rancourt

Poet Suzanne S. Rancourt is a multi-modal artist who lives and works in the American Northeast. She is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, with periods of active-duty and reserve service both prior to the first Gulf War and following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some of her ancestors are Abenaki and Huron. Others are European. In her poetry, she honors both.

Rancourt is a practitioner of Aikido, a martial art that leverages an opponent's momentum against one's foes. She has experiences and certifications in various techniques of healing and recovery. In addition to a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, she holds a graduate degree in educational psychology.

In person, Rancourt is sly and stubborn, independent but quick to offer trust. In stories, she is celebrated for wearing red Chucks under her ceremonial garb. She carries a metaphorical long knife against inauthenticities and inequalities, which she readily draws with a slow grin. She is the embodiment of your favorite, rebellious aunt—the one person you should always seek out at a party, or in times of crisis.

One of her favorite forms of communication is a jab of insight or advice, delivered just under a rumble of conversation elsewhere in the room. Examples, taken from my own acquaintance: “Make sure to talk to him. He is an Elder.” “Never piss off a Lakota woman.” “It is time for you to take over for me as poetry editor.”

Each time, a smile at the surprised reaction she’d provoked.

Rancourt's second collection of poetry, “murmurs at the gate” (Unsolicited Press, 2019), explores themes of survivorship, as well as service to country, family, and community. (Her first collection was 2004's “Billboards in the Clouds,” Curbstone Books.) The 200-page book comprises 136 poems, presented across four untitled sections.

Her favored images are culturally broad, taken from the poet's life experiences and travels, family history and heritage. They include such disparate elements as backbones and bears, trains and tea, Buddhas and Babylon. The “gate” evoked by the collection's title can variously be read as a window to the ancient world, an opening in the veil between life and death, and the threshold to perception. While some of her topics are gritty and plain-spoken—particularly those regarding violence and women—Rancourt keeps focus on learning and healing, and singing songs of resilience.

In short, from her life and travels, Rancourt has successfully woven a rich and accessible mythology. In each poem, she variously shares a hit of wisdom, an insight to Otherness, or a potentially useful parable. As she writes in one poem (“Mish’ala”), “[…] My story is a poppyseed of delicacy, a peppercorn of truth, / an onion flake of— / salt”.

In the beginnings of another, “the final round,” she spits:
i load my gatling mouth with words
i sport ammo belts of documentation, certification
and identification criteria
pyres of brass shells gather ’round my feet
commemorative paraphernalia
strung together as a story wampum […]
Rancourt's military service is ever-present—a few poems even explicitly regard narratives of service, war, and remembrance—but does not center the collection. Instead, her military experience and vocabulary are organic—a seamless part of her larger poetic palette. This is the voice of an artist-veteran who has confidently reengaged with society and her communities, rather than remain aloof and apart from them. Note, for example, how effortlessly she buries "pressure plate" into the rich, sensory descriptions of “Grampa's House”:
We would walk through the once-horse-stall-hog-pen-now-garage
into the tool shop—our shoed feet scuffed tin shavings and sawdust
under wooden work benches soaked with bar oil, pine
and cool dampness. We walked through another door
into the summer kitchen across the Andy Warhol linoleum,
through the scent of mothballs
our weight triggering like pressure plates
the pumpkin pine floorboards that rattled
the stacked tin buckets made
by Great-Great-Grampa Daniel from Scotland
and Grammy’s bottle collection from years of dump digging adventures
Even those poems that more directly relate to military service do so in ways that build bridges. In “The Reticent Veil,” for example, one need not be familiar with tribal practices or terms, in order to appreciate the universal:
[…] they all came back at Ceremony
when me and a Dance brother folded the flag
for the last time on the last day that he handed to me
in a shape that brought it all back to twenty years before
standing on the hillside, looking over Wilson Lake
dress blues, rifles, and Corfam dress shoes cracked
the unusually frigid December where a flag was folded
and handed to me in a shape
that equaled the grief of the world
which came and went as concrete and steel crushed as
the bones and dust I wake up chewing
and it all came back
when me and a sister held taught
a Grande Parade of a royal blue silk veil
maintaining reticent tension—
lovers and wives of warriors, sisters of warriors,
mothers of sons who are warriors—
we folded sharp-angled silence with the precision of lock and load
we creased with steady cadence our losses and recognized each other
not letting go
of the fabric the wind claims for a moment
and my words fluttered
“This is not a flag we are folding.”
One of Rancourt's most-notable forms, at least to this reviewer, seems her own take on haibun—a narrative or image that ends with a related haiku. Quoted here in abbreviated form, the poem "How much guilt?" provides an example:
Gold highlights in her hair beckon like the heart of Buddha.
A star—ancestral—pierced with suffering bled into a living tree
our only hope to ascend—go home—enter into, onto, a path of service. […]

Why do we continue
to search
the hearts
to bring home
our kind?

Leave no soldier behind

How long
do we search?
As long as it takes.
Rancourt's poetry questions assumptions and authorities, providing wisdom without providing answers. No matter our own life experiences, her latest collection offers gifts on every page. All we need do is to listen. To the stories. To the songs. To the voice under the voices.

For as long as it takes.