The opening poem of Susan Allspaw’s debut collection Little Oblivion, “Swallowing Antarctica,” concludes:
I would swallow all Antarctic
relics, men and science alike, embody
ancient ice and waters teeming with
life, caught in evolution and frozen,
a blueprint, a map on which to chart a course.
The collection which follows fulfills this promise of a poetic cartography of Antarctica, as Allspaw’s poems both swallow and are swallowed by the ice which “catches all our fallen graces in its cracks” (“Crack it Open”).
The Antarctic landscape realized in these poems is at different times sacred, scientific and achingly personal. A search for origins connects the poems, in “Southern Ocean, Fairies and Winter Solstice” she writes:
are taking optics of ice cores, fluorescence
of phytoplankton–they are looking for light
to appear as it did at the beginning, the way
we’re told the beginning was
This action of tunneling through the ice for answers is repeated throughout the collection, but rarely is ice solely ice. The best poems in the collection are those which embody the layering of the ice core, where the individual memories and experiences of the different inhabitants of McMurdo Ice Station play out against the ever present backdrop of ice. In “The Body of the Ice Remembered” the memories of a diver are almost given flesh by the ice:
If only he could stay down, below the surface
his breath forming a body on its underside, then hands
wouldn’t matter, then deep water would be enough.
This poem, and others in the collection, display awareness of a desire to completely write oneself onto and over the landscape, but Allspaw sidesteps this, never allowing the impressions of her human subjects to completely overcome their setting. Instead there is a reciprocity between human and land, as when she writes of “shells that once were people,” or how “women aren’t heroes-–they are the ice”.
This interchange is not just one of extraction from the ice; there is also a human cost to interaction with this landscape. In the final lines of the final poem of the collection, “Crack it Open,” is mutual injury: “we are with it, in all its / fallen glory, the ice. Our bodies / cracked and weeping for open water.”
As Allspaw wrestles with the complexities of the landscape, her language seeks out different dictions and registers to express what she finds there. Some of the poems are pure lyric energy, as in “When Ice Catches Daylight, Addiction,” where “Edges like a salt lick. Snowflakes / big as father’s hands. Ice sheets/ in herds moving in front of the bow. / Like sheets how with love, they keep us / buoyant.” Others, like “Not For The Krill,” reflect the scientific undertaking of the ice station: “she will have a net filled / with baby krill and salps, ready to observe, dissect, / count. / This is not about krill or their number.” And in the midst of the lyric and the scientific are conversational accounts, how “At the Point, Michelle wears her hood / because it’s cold and no one can see her” (“Michelle at Hut Point”).
Each of the competing linguistic understandings enriches and complicates the others, sometimes even within the same poem. The central poem of the collection, the sonnet crown “Seven Attempts at Observation Hill,” begins like a travelogue–“My second day on ice. The rest decide / to hike to summit. We dress for cold air”–then by the fourth sonnet moves into lyric consideration of the sacred–“God was not / part of the plan for my South, but then I / should have known better. Everyone seems to / be looking for him in every crevasse”–before it ends in questions of articulability: “What will we say / when people ask us how cold it was? / If it was hard? If, somehow, we found what / we were looking for?”
These are not simple questions. Allspaw uses the sonnet crown deftly, and this poem is a microcosm of the entire collection, circling, revealing more of the topography of the ice, of the speaker, at each refrain but never claiming to find the answer, or the origin, the speaker seeks.
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