Karen Skolfield: Three Poems

Feature Poet:
Karen Skolfield



Most common and thus easiest
to hide amongst, gravel swept,
grassthin, low crawl, creepalong,
identical sway and leaf, palmate,
camouflage, among many
one soldier one civilian
shopping in a market


Sinuous, bidirectional
as in a man looking both ways
sensing another
behind him, intent drawn,
the senses become sharpened
in times of war,
most often isolated,
strung thin, and if two converge
one swallows whole the other


Slipfaced, radiant, heart refusing
to detach, O brothers upward
leaping, eyes all around
battle buddy, latrine even,
meaning more when dusk
growing upward, tallest thing on earth


Circular the reasoning of war,
no fools, they’ve seen
political cartoons, had the joke
enacted on their bodies. The soldier
forwards a .gif of M-16 casings
turning gold, cast into pockets
of the whiterich, set on repeat,
mouthgrit they learn to laugh through,
on patrol stands at the
upwind margin of sandsea,
horizon scans the nothing, which means
not yet


Blowout, hairpin, crested,
elongate arms for pushaway,
stormsifted, ragecrossed,
horn of the bull, held back
in part and fixed in place,
the rest in migration
impossible to sitstill
with the windburn, even just
the sound of it, remember?


You here for the hummingbird talk?
the ranger asks. It’s 102 degrees
and the visitor’s center has AC.

Over battlefield relics, the ranger’s taped
pictures of delicate nests, a whir of birds.
Jewel to the throat. Behind them,

Minié balls hover, never reaching a target.
He recommends the driving tour,
radio set to 1610.

I drive the last major battleground
of the Army of Northern Virginia,
just days before surrender.

Thousands died not knowing
that in 150 years the streets would bear
cheerful signs: “Lee’s Retreat”

with a cartoon bugle. The radio crackles.
The corn’s grown tall again
and there are cows, generations

from the cows Confederate troops ate,
raw, so faint from hunger cooking
wouldn’t do. Even hummingbirds

can’t cover what’s been done.
A commemorative painting dark enough
I can’t tell blue from gray, and maybe

that was true in life. Because
of AM propagation and Virginia hills
a ghost voice fades out, comes back,

telling me what happened here
but it’s so faint it might be telling me
the thing that’s still to come.

“If war is the dark side of humanity, then military medicine is the light.”
—Dr. Jonathan Woodson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs


Windlass, turnstile, the gate
latched to stave the wandering,
self-adhesive, twistage,
rod included, never at the joint.
Item of last resort, revolutionary,
one-handed operation,
the blooded grip, constriction,
door closed, the tap turned off,
the light intentionally dim.

Battlefield Dressing

From the carapace of lobsters
comes the stanching, clotting agent;
a full 50 percent perish out of want.
Morbidity versus mortality
and the words borne within:
morbid, mortal, moral,
as of a story with a less-than-happy
ending until the newest combat gauze,
from the middle French gaze,
seen dimly, the curtain’s descent,
chitosan so similar to our own
fingernails. Biodegradable, even.

Golden Hour Blood Container

Because heat or cold
is the ruin, slim window
of living, from this person
to that, from me to you,
one soldier born a universal donor,
another a universal recipient,
we say factors as if blood had a choice.
Treatment at the point of injury,
how a place is a field
before it is forever a battlefield.
Scraping away of the final boundary
of skin, the blood rising as it is wont.

Lozenge for Pain Management

The body taught to dampen
a nervous system overfull
of sympathies, learn to power down,
the soldier cooperative and fully awake,
candy to the tongue. Clip the wires,
reroute traffic, as if waterways,
as if the body were one long river
no longer touching its own banks,
left to run dry.


Dancing With the Stars
made us believers.
Such leaps made, see how
the civilians benefit. No longer
the frustration of zippers,
pennies in their slimness,
inclines as tricksters,
how the mind controls
and the digits obey, titanium,
lightweight, pinch process,
the algorithm of grasp and release.
Comes in all the tones that once
were called flesh.

Treating Traumatic Brain Injury

The signature wound of Iraq
and Afghanistan, concussive, small blast,
not a bruise exactly but a quake,
slosh in the bucket.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy,
or was it hyperbola, loop
around the brain, the points
of anger running an endless track.
What we thought were stars:
cells winking out of existence.
Still unexplained: tinnitus,
the smallest of bells
ringing, ringing, ringing.
Slated for trials with children,
the danger of soccer and playgrounds
always a worry.

Regenerative Medicine

Who doesn’t want to be reborn
after the flame, skin graft
sprayed like graffiti on a wall
blackened by soot, burn victim,
that great open wound.
Definitive coverage, how the skin
speaks in binary: here, not here
and the organs listen only to the skin.
Scars a map to nowhere, fading each day
until someone says “Oh, were you
in the military?” and how startling,
how very good to be asked.

Karen Skolfield’s Battle Dress (W. W. Norton) won the Barnard Women Poets Prize and will be published in 2019. Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry, and she is the winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from Missouri Review. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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