What the Ice Knows: Susan Allspaw's Little Oblivion, by Michael McLane

Essayist William Fox writes of how perception shifts and distorts in desert landscapes: “There are seldom structures, no constructed boundaries, hence no middle ground upon which the eye can settle even momentarily in order to establish a left and a right, a front and a back separate from our own body…we’re drifting about, thrust back into a sphere of spatial perception about on par with a baby…we can orient ourselves to basic directions and that’s about all, too meager a body of information to buttress our sense of self against the universe for long.”

Those who have spent time in Arctic or Antarctic regions will testify that frozen, icy landscapes have much the same effect on human perception. In her new collection, Little Oblivion, Susan Allspaw makes that same connection noting that “Even ice over ice creates heat, / melts rough faces / into smooth century –skins…we get / lost in that imaginary horizon, /the space where we must / believe in infinity or die.” It takes time to adjust to the vast and subtle shades of blues and whites, to recognize the ecological complexity to which the seemingly vast and barren shelf plays host. 

Like Fox, Allspaw makes her home in the West but worked for extended periods at Antarctic research facilities.  Her poems embrace the disorientation described above and use it as a catalyst for renegotiating both the relationships she left behind in the U.S. and the only “structures” or “boundaries” that present themselves in her temporary home – her colleagues and the wildlife with which she occasionally comes into contact. Often, these past and present worlds conflate to create a kind of intercontinental cartography that is both oneiric and ritualistic. In the early poem, “Naming the Bird,” (a title reflective of the Edenic deep freeze she finds herself drawn to again and again) Allspaw encounters a giant petrel that quickly becomes a guide through the emotional terrain that preceded her journey:

         I call it lighted darkness,
         my named nightmares,
         the ones I cannot lose.
         I call it seen, observed, logged,
         made public.
         I call it holy, sacred,
         I call it freed slave.
         I call that bird my mother’s lost breasts.

Allspaw makes it clear that, no matter how far each employee at the McMurdo station has traveled to be there, there is something in its remoteness, in its quietude, that causes countless versions of home to encroach like so much ice. “A Consequence of Solitude” presents a poignant, two-part example in which the narrator admits

         When I get to the point of counting my lover’s chest hairs
         laying on top of the comforter, I have reached a new low.
         But it was just this morning when I crawled back into bed,
         naked, and we made love with only minutes to spare before
         he missed his plane, before I was late to work.

A few stanzas later, we find her at work, the distant Antarctic work that should create a loneliness all the more acute. However, this narrator finds solace in place of pain, an unexpected longing to

         …take a small boat built for one, carry it across
         ice floes too thick to crack with a wooden hull, make it back
         to the ice where I believe I will rest. I will do anything to get there—                                    make bargains with people for things I don’t have—
         but the ice is as distant as sleep.

Likewise, the ice follows Allspaw home, taking on various forms, imposing itself on the occasional and the mundane alike, as in “White’s Escape Attempt,” where ubiquitous white “is trying to save us…is a run on things, turkeys on Thanksgiving Day, / loose change at the bus station. / White makes love to me when I’m not looking. / White is easy Easter lilies in April, / mothers’ wedding dresses, and moons.” 

But the characters in Little Oblivion find that Antarctica confuses the temporal as well as the spatial. Sleep in one season is easy in its perpetual darkness; sleep in another impossible in its endless light. Memory comes alive and time is little more than a game imposed on the land by man, as in “Going to Pole” where one of Allspaw’s colleagues

         plants his feet flat
         on the edge of one hour,
         then another,
         wraps himself in tomorrow…

         a minute is still a minute,
         and a man chasing his tail
         around a pole
         is only chasing a shadow that never grows.

Despite all its quiet, its coy sun, slow-moving ice and idiolect that threatens to lull the reader in its repetition – ice, snow, white, bow are particularly frequent in the poems –  Allspaw’s book bursts to life in moments of sudden violence that feel even more difficult to articulate than the landscape or the solitude it allows. It is in these moments that the unyielding, unrelenting aspects of the continent are exposed and our vulnerability to them impossible to ignore. It is here, in poems like “Other Bodies” where “the continent chooses which bodies to bury, / like the crash on Erebus, like the two skiers who fell / too far into a crevasse to save” or in “McMurdo Spring” where there is a “heart attack out by the pressure ridges. A man is down…maybe he could feel the sea beneath his feet, small god moment / too large to take.” The conveniences and expectations of home are far away here – no morgues, unlikely rescues, scaled back medical facilities. “When someone dies here, his body is stored in the science freezer.”

Such moments are not reserved solely for humans. Weather and terrain are equally ruthless to the wildlife that calls it home. Birds and marine life lead harsh lives and die harsh deaths – some in the name of the nature, some in the name of science. Even the land seems to be struggling with itself as storms surge (“everything in the night will come through”), floes collide with ships and each other, and ice shelves calve into the sea and unravel the more meditative moments of other poems. Erosion is the most dramatic, albeit slowest, process of all. But when seen on such a scale, it is visceral as any storm. The ice and water scour and “land as old as this carries an imprint / of those walls of ice, an old woman / whose hips never forget the mark of birthing. /Age frays a heavy weave, wears things down.“ 

Death looms in these poems, though they rarely feel melodramatic. There is an oscillation in the work between awe for the overwhelming kinetics of her new home and mourning for everyday life and its inability to save us despite all its conveniences and loves. This latter sense plays out in variety of forms – a lost father, missing lovers, even a “widower” who haunts several poems, his wife’s death neither explained nor explored. It is this tension between two senses of place that pushes the work along, each location projecting itself onto the other.

Novelist Lance Olsen writes that traveling “is like clicking a link on a website: a surge of disorientation followed by almost immediately by a surge of reorientation. Only in three dimensions. Over and over again.”  That is essentially the map Little Oblivion creates in its travels. So close to the polar convergence of time and space, we are always with and without Antarctica, its seemingly blank canvas of ice an odd mnemonic for everything that comes before and after it. As Allspaw puts it

         We hear it calling, think about sisters
         and hidden naked bodies on a snow
         covered beach. We are with it, in all its
         fallen glory, the ice. Our bodies
         cracked and weeping for open water.

Michael McLane

Michael McLane is an editor for saltfront: studies in human habit(at) and Sugar House Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Dark MountainDenver Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, Laurel Review, and Interim, among other journals. He lives in Salt Lake City where he runs literary programming for the Utah Humanities Council.