News from You
Girls in fairy tales rarely have friends. Some have sisters, but then it's more important that they are sisters: twinned or triplicate, mirrored, fractured. Many have helpers: sub- or superhumans with no lives of their own.
That is what I mean by friends: lives in parallel. Perhaps fairy-tale heroines are not permitted to have friends because then they would be less than original, or because friends would mean unchastity, deliberate daring.
But you and I are not heroines, are we? We depend on these parallel lives to get us through. My breadcrumb trail is news of you.
News comes in the form of Karen Skolfield's debut collection, Frost in the Low Areas. Skolfield has a breezy, conspiratorial voice, an eye for detail, and a columnist's knack for crack characterizations: a baby cries "her really pissed-off cry, / as if her beachfront property just slid into the sea." Her best poems read like good gossip, a defense of daily life. Defense: fixing, making yourself permanent against something unnamed -- a force that presses against Skolfield's orderly margins.
Her poems often follow some kind of scheme. In "Skeleton Key," it's a list of all that can be unlocked: "one half of the leopard / from the other, the warship from its course, / the arrow from the uncertain bow." The scheme scaffolds the poem, giving Skolfield's imagination a shape to color in, and readers, a line to follow. The danger of such construction is that whatever fills out the form can seem like padding, as in the list of fleshly giveaways in "Fossils: Blount County": "give away the flesh, let the cheeks fall away, / the lips, the hair that went gray so early; / give the eyeballs in their gelatinous cups" and so on. It's not that Skolfield doesn't eventually find her way to something indelible, rather that I wish she'd trim down to this couplet, or start from here and find her way out: "Give the heart stilled in its slow river. Give / the lungs on their gray and blameless plains."
But the abandon I want risks a danger she can barely face. In "Skeleton Key," eventually she reaches an inevitable thought -- but watch how quickly she shies from it. "And though it's terrible to say," she murmurs, the key can unlock
the you from me and then we remember
that although the key unlocks
it also binds two things together.
Half a line: that's it. The speaking voice shudders, the poem behaves.
I don't know about this demand of mine, though. Skolfield has to live here, after all, not just pass through like her readers. And her dangers are real, though she rarely tackles them head-on: a villain of a father who "raped at least one niece, / granddaughters, the daughters of visiting / missionaries", a dead and opaque mother, a past acquaintance with professional violence (Skolfield did stints in the Army and National Guard). These flashes of specific danger illuminate the apparent subject of the book: Skolfield's fears for her own family. She paints these fears as ordinary and they are: mothers will find themselves driving past cemeteries with their children on board, lovers will wonder who dies first. But it seems to me that Skolfield knows more than she admits to. Simmering under the surface, erupting in sudden flares, is a personal rage or guilt or both so hot it sets her fantasizing about freezing her own body parts to death to "punish" them.
This is my bias, you know: I want to crack the shell and see in. I've never been concerned enough with how you might put everything back together later. In "Head Injury Guidelines," Skolfield hints at what you might see when you're that broken -- "A new world revealed only to you" -- but she doesn't take the scope herself.
I plowed through MariNaomi's collection of short comics, Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories, in two sittings, which is an index to its reading pleasure. What is so appealing is primarily, I think, how MariNaomi shares a life, one that is distinct in its details (the author's stand-in Mari is West Coast, a visual artist, half-Japanese), yet connected. Here is another woman searching for love, risk, and connection amid the hubbub of the contemporary -- boyfriends, best friends, bedbugs, exes, rock music, and rentals.
But it's also MariNaomi's light touch. She takes advantage of her form to end each vignette a little shy of a moral. A sequence about a dreadful and manipulative ex ends with Mari in a bar, making out with a new guy and thinking to herself, just as she did at the beginning of her last relationship, "What the hell. You only live once." A banner proclaims, "This one's going to be even messier, folks!" So she hasn't learned yet -- but the banner also suggests that she will, and she'll live to laugh about her mess. Even the heaviest story in the book, which tells about Mari's Jekyll and Hyde grandfather, ends with a question.
About herself, too, MariNaomi remains open. In a story about a charismatic and wild ex, she mourns the loss of the self who loved and was loved by him: "I'm more reserved now, less inclined to pry the life story out of a stranger, something I used to do all the time. It was one of the things Jason used to love about me and now it's GONE." That's not the end of the story, though, and the realization doesn't crush her. She often shows up her ordinary failures -- to take care of strangers, to behave, to be brave -- without either castigating herself for them or explaining them away.
Her artistry is another pleasure. She exploits comic conventions, shifting between realism and cartoonishness to create emotion. A homeless schizophrenic goes from ordinary to pinwheel-eyed as he recognizes Mari; that's her perception of him, we realize her fear. When she calls her out, telling her "You are ugly on the inside!" her face goes from stylized flatness to full realization, guilt and sadness tugging at her beautiful features. Across the book, the confidence of her line and design vary -- I imagine because some vignettes are older than others -- but at its best, MariNaomi's art is the journal you dreamed of when you were thirteen, with text neatly tucked around call-outs and images. She even includes real newspaper clippings and photos: proof of the shared world she's wrestling with.
News of you comes from all over: a postcard from a friend in pain in Montreal, a phone call with a wanderer in the desert. Friends I haven't heard from in years reappear and others fade. I coincide with this one, that one, then watch our paths fork. You're on the other trail now. I can still see your red hat bobbing through the woods between.