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The Next Best Thing: Dressed to Kill

(Editor’s note: What follows is indeed the latest in our “Next Best Thing” series, introducing you to people and events that you’ll wish you hadn’t missed. In this case, though, you’ve been granted a second chance: Karen Skolfield will be reading this weekend, as part of LitFest at Amherst College. Saturday at 11:00 a.m., in the Frost Library.)

Welcome to the Jones Library, and Amherst, and to this book launch/poetry reading. If you are perhaps a Skolfield-Goeckel, or if you know Karen through ice hockey, or through poetry, or if you have wandered in thinking, “A poetry reading! Maybe there will be wine & cheese,” well, congratulations, because you have wandered into something brilliant. (And Karen has promised red velvet cake.)

We’re here to celebrate Karen Skolfield’s second book, Battle Dress, which won the Barnard Women Poets Prize and has just been published by Norton Press. I’ll get back to Battle Dress, which is only the latest in the list of her awards and accomplishments, but here are some of her truly impressive accomplishments:

1) She can write a poem about choosing a couch and make it about the nature of marriage and what it is to be a good partner.
2) She has a recipe for chicken enchilada bowls that takes just half an hour to make and will feed 30 happy people, adults and kids, and she will follow it up with apple crisp, and do this on a camping trip.
3) Her camping trips/hikes (with her husband, Dennis, and kids, Walker & Felix) have included Death Valley, a volcanic area in Iceland, and bushwhacking in Yellowstone.
4) Until very recently, she coached ice hockey. She also plays ice hockey.
5) She is a U.S. Army veteran, honorably discharged after seven years of service.

Maybe you wanted to know more about her writing career. Her first book, Frost in the Low Areas, won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry. In this book, she turns a star into a baby into a star. And that’s just the first page. (So a star is born). She won the 2015 Arts & Humanities Award for Emerging Artist from New England Public Radio. To prove she’s emerged, she’s since won the Missouri Review’s 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry with an excellent batch of poems you’ll see in Battle Dress, in addition to fellowships and awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Split This Rock, Ucross Foundation, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center.

Also, despite NOT living in my town, Northampton, she is our current poet laureate. (What’s going on, Amherst? Do you not have a Poet Laureate position? Is it kept in perpetuity for Emily? That’s fine. You get Emily. We get Karen.)

Her poems can be found basically everywhere. Or should be found basically everywhere. Because they are stunning, and I don’t mean in the way that a grenade goes off, but in the way when your child comes down actually dressed up for a formal occasion and your jaw drops because you have never seen something so gorgeous that makes you think on so many levels at once about who this is and what this amazing creature is doing in the world, and what you should be doing about it.

This book, Battle Dress, is one such amazing creature.

For a long time, poems about war, and books of poems about war, have been written by men. Battle Dress takes up the situation in a way which makes it clear that war is not just about men; in this book, we are very much aware of women, women who are participating both in the act of battle (dressed to kill) and in the army as a community; even when not actively in service, they are alive to its existence, and what that means for their children and the world. While these poems take on a sequence of military service, that service may begin with one in a finite period, but it does not stay within neat historic dates or battle-grounds. It is written into the words we use—like “enlist” and “discharge”; it is replayed in games (“Civil War Reenactment, Look Park”) and musicals (“Les Miz”); it spurs inventions (“Combined Gun & Plow Patent, 1862”) and medical innovations (“Rescued Parrots Used in PTSD Therapy”). Battle Dress gives us a voice we need to hear.

JANET R. BOWDAN is a professor of English at Western New England University.

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