Karen Skolfield’s book Battle Dress (W.W. Norton, 2019) won the Barnard Women Poets Prize and her book Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press, 2013) won the PEN New England Award in poetry. She is the winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from The Missouri Review and has received additional awards and fellowships from the Poetry Society of America, New England Public Radio, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Split This Rock, and elsewhere. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
At the Mall, There’s a Machine That Tells You If You Are Racist
By Karen SkolfieldAdded: Tuesday, September 8, 2015 / Skolfield's poem is the First Place Winner of the 2014 Split This Rock Annual Poetry Contest, generously adjudicated by Tim Seibles. Used with permission.
It's right next to a Polariod booth.
The instructions say the needles are small
and barely felt. The pictures, it explains,
have nudity, but no gratuitous nudity.
Special imaging equipment considers
the color value of your own skin
and calibrates your reactions
to words shouted in your headphones.
You know what words. Reading the instructions
brings some of these words to mind. You wonder
if this is part of the evaluation, if people
who are not racist think only of beautiful flowers,
or are beautiful flowers the very basis of racism?
Does everyone love the violet equally?
Does everyone think the tulip's been overdone?
You try to think of a brown flower.
There are some. You've seen them in catalogs.
They're called "chocolate." Black flowers, too,
with varieties named Nightwatch,
Black Pearl, a lily named Naomi Campbell.
Thinking of this makes you hopeful
the machine will know you're not a racist.
Or does remembering a black flower was named
Naomi Campbell mean you're a racist?
The inside of the booth is dimly lit with walls
that look as if they could swiftly close together.
Like a grape, you'd pop right out of your skin.