Poem of the Week | September 24, 2018

This week we are excited to share a poem by our 2016 Editors’ Prize winner Karen Skolfield! To enter this year’s contest head on over to our contest page.

Karen Skolfield’s poem “The Throwing Gap” was part of her winning entry for the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry. Her Missouri Review poems are now part of her book Battle Dress, which won the Barnard Women Poets Prize and will be published fall 2019 by W. W. Norton. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The Throwing Gap

Because so many recruits threw like girls
we had to be tested before moving on
to live grenades, helmets chalked
with “P” or “F,” or was it “Y” or “N,”
was it “XX” which meant bad,
“XY” which meant good, with a helmet
who could tell what was being 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.
We did not want the tenderness
we saw in certain men. We did not want
their baby soothing, pot stirring,
backrubbing, dishwashing gestures.
If they owned ride-on lawnmowers
we did not want that, nor book readers,
nor lovers of cats and wine and appetizers;
if they had hobbies let it be catcalling,
the gutting and skinning of mammals,
the flaying of fish. Let dominion be shown
by the men we wanted to be,
let pianos be lifted, bench press two bills,
let it be football even if the QB
was so often the slightest of them,
let any dress shoes languish in the closet
until Sundays and funerals. Make us male
for this moment, the thickened thorax,
the height; make it come with a temper,
make us want to destroy whatever displeased,
have us piss on lawns as demarcation.
Whatever someone else has built,
make us want to knock over.
Let us say pussy, pussy, pussy
and hate ourselves, let us see those
who lack strength and crush them,
let us beer can to the forehead,
let us drink and punch our own selves
and then the mirrors and the windows
and whatever may reflect like a stranger’s
or spouse’s or child’s pinpricked eyes
which are our own eyes let it be failure
that drives us or the fear of it or someone
who said pussy pussy pussy while lighting
our boy hair on fire or unbuckling the buckle
let us not ever show compassion for that boy
let us take a grenade and say hell yes
and play with the pin and cannot wait
to violence and let us love vengeance
let it be the one thing we truly love.
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 we will say Me too.

Author’s Note:

When I started doing research for this poem, I wanted to know more about the testing we underwent in basic training to make sure we could throw a grenade without blowing up ourselves or others. I remember women in my platoon having their helmets marked for side-arm throwing and other infractions, and the research led me to the term “the throwing gap,” which is a well-studied, significant difference in the genders, even for prepubescent children. That led me down some other hallways, including domestic violence, the conflation of sexuality and war, the power dynamic between drill sergeant and recruit. Almost every female veteran I know has some version of this story, including the ending.