Excerpt from BATTLE DRESS


Excerpted from Battle Dress: Poems by Karen Skolfield

The author of this excerpt, Karen Skolfield, will be a speaker at Amherst College’s LitFest 2020.


Enlist: Origin < German, to court, to woo

Perhaps with a desk between, 
some chaste space, the recruiter leaning 
forward, warm bodies on the other side. 

Of the teenagers present 
one will lie about her age, 
one will eat bananas to make weight, 

one pull herself from small-town quicksand.
Lace the hands behind the head, 
look good in a uniform, look nonchalant. 

Army doesn’t take everyone, 
maybe you, maybe not; lose 10 pounds, 
no backtalk, straight-spined, clear-eyed, 

more than anything in your sad life 
this matters; memorize the ranks, 
don’t act smart, go on long runs, 

carry a pack, push-ups wouldn’t hurt, 
don’t get pregnant, don’t wet the bed, 
first things they check. 

Don’t lie, but mark “no” 
as much as you can, maybe a little more. 
To be added to a list or catalogue

to see one’s name nestled 
among other names, included, 
individual but part of, how an engine 

won’t run with a part misplaced, 
how the lug nut informs the wheel. 
Takes all kinds, some love KP, 

some the motor pool, surveillance, 
fire support, supply specialist, 
infantry from the Latin for children. 

You’ll learn to work together, that’s how 
the Army is, someone’s got to be 
the firing pin, someone else the trigger.


On Veterans Day, My Daughter Wishes Me 
Happy Veterinarians Day

The sound of explosives disrupts 
the species memory of migration.
Young ducks huddle at the burning ponds.
They’d fly, but where? Magnetic north 
a confusion in the air, tracers falling to the ground. 
The horses, even the battle trained, 
wheel in confusion. The simple whites of their eyes. 
My sergeant called what I did with a handgun 
the needless slaughter of worms. He said 
Skolfield, you’re a crime against fishing. 
Early in the morning, 
my daughter’s hair an irregular nest. 
The peeping of fledglings. 
In my hands a bowl, the silverware serrated. 
What springs from those hands is a bludgeon of doves. 


Double Arm Transplant

Even grafted limbs sigh 
when the rains come. 
The hands, those twin divining rods,
may tremble in the presence 
of an old love. Now they’re the arms 
of a veteran. The hair that grows 
from the arms a different shade. 
Since the transplant he writes left handed. 
He waits for the hands to reveal 
their previous life as farmer or electrician.   
By a piano he pauses to see 
if the wrists rise to the music. 
If the knuckles love the baseball. 
If the fist curls in anger. Before: 
did he drum his fingers on the desk? 
Was the salute quite so crisp? 
On its own, the pinky angles to the teacup. 
It’s the giver of these arms speaking 
whenever he debones a fish or juggles. 
Every time a tennis ball comes down 
it sits in the palm for a moment,  
then rises again.


Excerpted from Battle Dress: Poems by Karen Skolfield. Copyright © 2019 by Karen Skolfield. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Karen Skolfield’s book Battle Dress (W. W. Norton, 2019) won the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her book Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry and the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press, and is a Massachusetts “Must Read” selection. She is the poet laureate for Northampton, Massachusetts, for 2019-2021. Skolfield is the winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from The Missouri Review, the 2015 Robert H. Winner award from the Poetry Society of America, and the 2015 Arts & Humanities Award from New England Public Radio. She’s received 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. Her poems can be found in 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, Baltimore Review, Boulevard, Carolina Quarterly, Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, Guernica, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, Memorious, Missouri Review, New Ohio Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, POETRY Magazine, RHINO, Shenandoah, Sixth Finch, Slice, Sugar House Review, Superstition Review, Washington Square Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts.

Excerpt from BATTLE DRESS

Related Posts

view of valley from mountain

August 2022 Poetry Feature: Nathan McClain—from PREVIOUSLY OWNED

Had I not chosen to live there— / among the oaks and birches, / trees I’d only ever seen in poems / until then…spruce, pine, / among the jack-in-the-pulpit / (though I much preferred “lady slipper”) / the tiger lily, milkweed, the chickadee / and blue jay, even the pesky squirrel

Park Bench

Translation: Poems by Juan de Dios García

He speaks to us of Finnish lakes, of a dialect populated by birds and fruit, of high wooded hills, perpetual snow, a petroleum sky. “In the north they’re raised on melancholy,” he says, “and their dead weigh more than those from here.” He speaks of a Greek father and a war.

car crash

July 2022 Poetry Feature

Like two passengers / in a wrecked automobile: // our eyes are fixed / on the sonogram screen— // an upside-down window / with no wiper blade // to sweep away the rain— / as the technician // inserts a long probe / and whispers, Come on. // Come on. The storm / approaches slow...