“See what the bullet writes down”: A Review of Karen Skolfield’s ‘Battle Dress’

Since reading Karen Skolfield’s Barnard Women Poets Prize winning collection, Battle Dress (W. W. Norton & Co., 2019), and particularly with this review in mind, I’ve been thinking about many of the poems. Yet the poem “Army SMART Book: This Page Left Blank Intentionally” has lingered and continues to burrow deep. Skolfield’s skillful poetic hand, as she highlights the lived-experiences and realities of this battle-ready world, reveals how identities necessarily shift when occupying those realties and lays bare shame and deep desires that surface when confronted with the expected and unexpected. Still, I’ve re-read and marked again and again this poem for its gnawing, magical quality:

Soldiers come with sand
in their bellies, or nothing at all.

Faces crumpling
like sheets of paper.

Here’s the best advice I got on the range:
Make the mind whitewalled,

room with no furniture, high noon,
heat rippled. Make it sunstroke and still.

Let the breath out. Squeeze.
See what the bullet writes down.

Throughout Battle Dress, Skolfield asks that we see what the poems show, that we understand what the poems know. The gravity of that last line, “See what the bullet writes down,” seems to pull each poem in this collection towards its core. The line is clear and unadorned, yet it’s the force of “bullet writes down” that grips us through the entire collection as motif or metaphor, symbol or sign. The directive for us see what has been written via the expended bullet reminds us that battle and war remain entwined in our cultural milieu along with (and for many of us) our cultural amnesia. Despite this poem arriving toward the end of Battle Dress, its poignant language-play recursively carries me back to each of the collection’s previous poems, including the titular poem.

Skolfield’s language-play with the title, Battle Dress, purposefully frames the entire collection. Readers understand what the denotative battle dress means—the battle uniform stripped bare of what’s not needed. To don this uniform is to be at the ready, to engage, it seems, in battle real or practiced. But with the interplay of introspection, identities, and the shifting cadence of invisibility, Skolfield’s Dress becomes a literal “play dress up,” or dressing a wound, or plays on gender-normative attire for women. The title acts as a kind of fulcrum for the entire collection, where balance is required when an imbalance of understanding is perceived. What’s pleasurable about a collection of poems that gently and intimately gazes upon a world that many find paradoxical is the “nature” of each poem. Stripped bare of what is not needed, each poem leaves us unimpeded; there is no varnish or paint to hide this world’s beauty and ugliness. Skolfield’s spare language incites the sights, the sounds, and the inner and outer lives of the armed services world. These poems tend to teach as much as they broaden our consciousness of a constant, deadening reality and awakens many of us from a cultural amnesia, from what it means to be in perpetual war and battle readiness.

The revelation of shifting identities and the kinds of experiences taken up by each poem continue to expose the ways in which sex/gender and sexuality are reinforced and/or challenged. Several of these poems trouble our long-held briefs about what it means to enlist and attempt to become part of a relatively small, distinct culture within our broader society. Skolfield could take the easy way by simply reinforcing the obvious kinds of biases and struggles that women face in what’s still largely a boy’s club. She does not. She moves us into a more complex, nuanced space of being “different” yet wanting desperately to fit in and to literally embody the male body. Women in the armed services are held up against men, those male standards of performance, physicality, and expectations, so there’s both a conflation and a separation of the sexes that inherently becomes a part of one’s experience. Those are powerful and often overlooked desires that compete with each other somehow finding frequent coalescence in this collection.

It’s not simply that competing desires (and experiences) from dissimilar if typically binary bodies merge into sometimes uncomfortable spaces. Skolfield critically examines the ways in which both identity, desire, and those spaces are socially constructed and reinforced, yet also challenged. From Skolfield’s luminous “CNN: Report: Rise in Sexual Assaults, Reprisals in the Military (2016)” and the confessional “Why I Never Wrote About the Army,” to the apparent tongue-in-cheek “Nurse Voted Best in SAC,” swiftly move us from uncomfortable space to uncomfortable space to recognition. Yet, it’s Skolfield’s one stanza-ed “Throwing Gap,” where her unambiguous language surrounding identity, desire, and to-be-reached expectations seem just out of reach:

Because so many recruits threw like girls
we had to be tested before moving on
to live grenades,

Here recruits suggests that “like girls” is attributable to any recruit not deemed sufficiently masculine and able-to-do what’s expected. However, not every recruit is a “girl” or “throws like one” within this highly structured context. It doesn’t matter so much how “girls” throw; what matters is that there is an idea of how women are expected to throw, expected to perform, and expected to be that is reinforced in and through language. These expectations are to be believed no matter if or when the women recruits achieve a standard constructed by men for real men. What quickly follows is a play on who passes or fails, who is affirmed and who is not, how the chromosomes match up or mismatch:

                        helmets chalked
with “P” of “F,” or was it “Y” or “N,”
was it ‘XX’ which meant bad,
            ‘XY’ which meant good, with a helmet

Skolfield’s meaning is made clearer with additional lines that reveal furtive desires that usually go unacknowledged:

who could tell what was written,
chalk in the hand of a man. 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.

This poem alone could carry Battle Dress. Additional lines continue to puncture notions of who belongs and who doesn’t but tends to reify what many believe to underscore our armed-services—brute strength with little equivocation. Skolfield doesn’t let up, writing, “we did not want the tenderness / we saw in certain men” and “Let dominion be shown / by the men who wanted to be,” delivering to readers a kind of script. Perhaps more reflective of a desire to belong, no matter what is given up to those desires, is manifest in the lines  “Make us male for this moment, the thickened thorax, / the height; make it come with a temper,” to the tellingly final six ironic lines:

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 well will say Me too.

We are transformed through Skolfield’s alchemy yet left with a sharp rebuke of “Me too” that doesn’t solicit guilt (though it might from some readers), but further questions why women specifically occupy the venerable double-bind. Those weak boys’ arms will grow and thicken, no doubt, and in that they can always claim their “authenticity.” We are left wondering why those boys-to-men may never question their own positions and why we ask those young women, why would you do that?

And there are, perhaps, more tender poems, like “On Veterans Day, My Daughter Wishes Me Happy Veterinarians Day” and “Anticipate Gunshots in the Second Half of the Play,” that decompress experience and make visible the largely invisible. Yet, it’s Skolfield’s interior, vulnerable and metaphoric “Rescued Parrots Used in PTSD Therapy” that seems to encompass a range of visible experiences that touch on what’s after. Skolfield’s first few lines don’t pretend to hide the clear comparison of our feathered friends to the returning injured and battle-weary: “Before Serenity Park these birds / self-mutilated: featherpluck, bloodbeak, / broken.” Skolfield lets us into this community of marines and sailors, the “Jims” and “Matts,” the broken and the beaten, but with the lightest touch to reveal that they are not what they appear. Such tenderness in the images and the bodily movements that this poem provides to us, it bears repeating that it’s no secret of Skolfield’s intent—the birds seem to recover, as do the vets. All we must do is follow Skolfield’s language through the pain and the joy to understand that its simplicity has the power to level her readers:

A marine lines with battered birds
his wheelchair. The tank gunner
an expert on sunflower seeds given
from lips to curving beaks.
The parrots know who’s who and have
their favorites. One loves a sailor.
A macaw sings for only Jim.
The sulfur-crested cockatoo
chooses the helicopter pilot:
Never has a bird let me down.

Still, the more deeply felt and enduring part of this poem, like many of the poems in this collection, is delivered in Skolfield’s last several lines:

            These birds are hurting,
Matt says, his good arm
sweeping the whole of the park.
Some vets won’t talk unless
a bird’s close by. Some clean
            the aviary, weeping. Some parrots
            can’t be with another bird, consider
            themselves human, or near enough.

“or near enough” writes Skolfield. Not quite whole, yet not quite as broken. Besides the rhythmic sways and lilts of this poem that carries on its own wings a staccatoed ricochet of Bs and Ts like bullets and bombs that drastically changed the lives of these vets, the soft Ss and Ls appear to settle and balance the anxieties and fears of living again.

Occupying this collection are additional poems that continue to provide perceptive introspection into the lives, experiences, and layered identities of the currently serving and the veterans that have come home. The poems that have in their title “Origin<” pull us toward the historical and play with the origins and current cultural locations of such words as “Grenade” and “Concertina Wire,” “War” and “Chevron,” “Sergeant.” (“Sergeant” is worth several reads for its illustrative content and for powerfully repetitive, conditional “If a man….”) Another motif-ed set of poems titled “Army SMART Book”—taken, as Skolfield notes, in part from the Soldiers’ Manual, Army Training book (located in the book’s end matter)—act as a literal and metaphorical instruction manuals teaching us the wheres and hows of a kind of unknown life, in particular “Army SMART Book: Inspirational Quotes (I).” Beginning with the General George Patton, Jr. inspirational quote centering on perfect discipline, Skolfield once again unveils an unknown interiority that contrasts two distinct yet not so distant experiences; here, how to break recruits. The males, easily broken down and malleable—“The males, I can break. / I break them down, / build them / back up, then they do anything / for me,” says Drill Sergeant Robinson—are further diminished by the female recruits’ apparent strength and ability to withstand consistent psychological and physical beratement:

            “ / […] Females don’t break.” /
            The sadness in his voice
made us sad, too. We wanted
            to break. Maybe we could fake
being good soldiers.
What would breaking look like,
for the females? Tears
we already know how to do.

Here again, Skolfield illuminates the hidden desires from the female recruits to be like them knowing that no matter what they do, they are not. There is a complexity to this poem that reveals a larger, more critical conversation about women’s roles in our current socio-political space, about working within strict gender/sex binaries, and about who and who is permitted to participate and to what degree. Those last few words—“Tears we already know how to do”—begs the question of what’s next when our culture typically deals with the inversion of roles and prevailing dominant ideology, not subversion. We are left with what we know to be the inspirational quotation, and it’s clearly not Patton, Jr.

As much as Skolfield’s Battle Dress has knocked me off my feet, picked me up again and knocked me down once more, its gravitational pull firmly holds me to where I began reading—“Army SMART Book: This Page Left Blank Intentionally.” The bullet imagery wends its way through readers’ minds and hearts illuminating for us and what the uninitiated can only hope to grasp. Clearly, nothing is left blank, but instead the pages of our consciousness are filled out, gently drawn by Skolfield’s intentional hup-hup to her readers. What I appreciate the most in Skolfield’s collection is a kind of deal with it attitude that carries and propels readers forward through each of her poems, each with language plain-spoken, heart-aching, and terribly authentic. Her images simple and visceral, stark and needed, a reminder that there exist service people doing the work and healing from it. Battle Dress is not heavy-handed, and there is no call-to-action. Its beauty lies in its simplicity and, despite me writing the too often used it is what it is, it’s more than enough.



Dameion Wagner

Dameion Wagner lives and works in Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Gordian Review, As It Ought To Be Magazine, in Tilde: A Literary Journal, and most recently in Cider Press Review. His reviews of poetry collections appear in Heavy Feather Review and The Rumpus with a new review forthcoming in 4squarereview. His first collection, 'Bird Wild,' will be published by Milk & Cake Press, Spring 2020. He won Miami University’s 2017 Jordan-Goodman Poetry Prize and is a 2018 recipient of the Academy of American Poets University Prize. He earned is MFA from Miami University's Low Res Program.

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