Karen Skolfield’s Battle Dress (W. W. Norton, 2019) provides a new syntax for a world that is strewn with the ubiquitous and inevitable detritus of war. Skolfield, an Army veteran, not only gives the reader a window into the mind of a soldier but also the language for returning to a life where plays, art, and historical battlefield visits make war a replayable and infinite loop. Skolfield’s incisive eye illuminates a whole spectrum of experiences, from basic training through post-deployment, with lyric yet unsentimental vision that cuts through tropes straight to the brain and the heart of the reader.
Like many combat veterans, you may continue to relive your experiences after the initial joy and relief of being back home subside.
“How the arm extends, the palm opens/the red pulp within, the perfect arc.//What is sown cannot be called back./We say bearing fruit and it is borne.” - from“Grenade: Origin<OFr. pomme-granate”
“The sounds out of their mouths might be complaints or praise, but it’s certainly not about the military. Think for yourselves! I call to them. Their heads flip up and down in exactly the same way. To say they look alike would be an understatement.” from “Wyoming Field Tactics”
“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.” from “Army SMART Book: This Page Left Blank Intentionally”
It’s not possible to leave an environment where you’ve witnessed death and destruction, been exposed to life-threatening events, or suffered personal losses without bringing intense feelings and memories of your experiences with you.
“I’d call it more hornet, or jacket zipper./Crack, hiss. Someone pissing his pants./A man snapping his fingers/as if he wanted you to look at him.” from “Army SMART Book: ‘Small Arms Fire May Sound Like Mosquitos’”
“As in, here’s the worst thing I’m ever going to whisper in your ear. A breath of almonds and talc, not decay as one might expect. “Is Given.” Passive voice, the arms turned to noodles, the body drooped against the couch. Finger languid to the trigger.” from “Poem with the Moment the Infantry Unit Is Given Clearance to Shoot Children”
Or maybe you’re struggling with uncertainties in your life and miss the clear purpose and objectives of military duty.
“The Army - look how it loves,/writing your name over/and over.//Obsessed, maybe./Worn like shame like/the Army’s your man//but he’s hit you./Hidden like a rub/cracked beneath the shirt.” from “Army SMART Book: Identification Tags, with Silencers”
“I hate having female recruits,”/Drill Sergeant Robinson told us.? The males, I can break./I break them down, build them/back up, then they do anything/for me. 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 knew how to do.” from “Army SMART Book: Inspirational Quotes (II)”
Give yourself time to get back into the role of parent. [...]Be careful not to push your way back into the parent role all at once, and be patient if your children don’t respond as quickly or as positively as you’d like.
“...and besides their sons,/what would the women have to give?/In poems I count the years until my son/registers for the draft. I know him:/he’ll boogie to the post office, sign his card./He’s down to six years, a number which,/in Roman numerals, looks like one/not-quite man beside the V for victory.” from “The Great Sacrifice of the Romans on Undertaking a War”
“Will the sound bother you? I ask./Mom, it’s Les Mis, he says/but it will be loud, believe me./You know I was in the military, I say./The lights have dimmed and if his eyes/are rolling I can’t see them.” from “Anticipate Gunshots in the Second Half of the Play”
It’s not uncommon for service members to be still dealing with the effects of combat stress after deactivation. Stress reactions are uncomfortable physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that are a normal response to traumatic or disturbing experiences.
“Stop moping, get out more,//all in your head, you’re home now,/you’re safe, family to consider,/the meds, the weight gain,//the loss, the breathless, the rasp of it./No magic bullet: tell me about it. Sometimes a rash like a target//so loved by marksmen./Despite everything, breath goes out/and is pulled back in.” from “CNN Report: Symptoms of PTSD Mimic Lyme Disease”
*Bold print text from “Adjusting to Civilian Life After Combat Duty with the Guard or Reserve” 2008, The Ceridian Corporation, Military OneSource. http://jointservicessupport.org
Image:ON THE SPECTRUM (detail)Richard SajaStirring, vol. 20 (1), 2018