Little Oblivion by Susan Allspaw
(Elixir Press, 2013)
reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb
Antarctica, the expanse of ice, the blues and whites, the temperatures with their sustained lows, the wilderness and wild that is there—seals, petrels, terns—and the humans who wrap themselves in layers of down to work and study in an unforgiving environment, a place of surprising life and obvious death: this is what Susan Allspaw’s first book of poetry, Little Oblivion, would have us consider.
Allspaw tells us, in her poem, “Burial,” that “the ice is trying / to tell me a secret it’s been keeping // for years.” That’s a clue to these poems, free verse poems that exhibit moments of narrative, though the real story is Allspaw’s examination of ice as “other,” of place as mystery, of landscape as the story-teller and mirror for what haunts and intrigues her. For Allspaw, this ice and landscape is father, mirror, and companion. We’re not just reading a poetry of place, of ecology, but a navigation of map and meaning, a reflection of “our nakedness as wonderful as icebergs.”
That nakedness is how we get to the overarching feeling—longing, for both meaning and connectedness—that dominates these poems. A poem early in the book, “Heading into Dion Island, Antarctica,” starts us on our journey to the ice—though to enter this challenging landscape, we must also recognize what we’re leaving—on a mission to count penguins and eggs.
Twenty centimeters of ice below the bow,
seven knots, and the barometer falls on us like bad news.
Yes, the good news is behind us. Yet, this adventure is a letter to her father, a man no longer with her. “Writing the dead is not easy,” she says, cleverly writing both to and about “the dead” in this case. “Pity dead fathers / can’t see us trawling for science, wanting to write home,” and we’re in Allspaw’s landscape, the place of craft and examination where she tells us about so many delicate things at once, recounting the science, her concrete mission, but linking to longing, to the human grasp of what’s already gone and can’t be regained, no matter how intelligent the writer or scientist.
[…] Dad, the sun rises in the north here, and the Southern Cross
is pointing with us, south, where we will census
what hasn’t been born yet. I can’t reach him through the salt water.
Sea smoke, my father. Brash churned with tide.
We experience the place, the past, an address to a father, but then the first-person brings us back to reality, to the more abrupt present. The voice of the letter, this story-teller attempting to send mail, faces the constraints, the reality, of this unforgiving place, of life. The tide and ice and water become both her father and the barricade that prevents her from reaching him. Allspaw has guided us to this lonely and poignant ambiguity.
Allspaw, who serves as support for the US Antarctic Program, is in the grip of that paradox. In the poem, “Weightlessness in a Red Parka,” she writes: “I walked on water / for hours. I lay in a seal’s old cradle, ready to curl up / for my own hibernation.” There is an almost religious attachment conveyed; we’re close to transcendence, something out of body, closer to animal than human. In other poems, this attachment is conveyed using remembrance and comparison, frequent tools in these poems used to bring in other worlds. In “The Body of Ice Remembered,” a male diver, one of a young crew who’s “excited about everything they see—smoking Erebus, / distant splashes of seals making holes, even the slush / forming on top of the dive hole,” also remembers his girl in Colorado.
His body will sink in the water
because when he isn’t in it, he is loving that girl
in Colorado, swimming through her,
all her parts.
Colorado is an alien word here, a collection of syllables that stand out as foreign because we’re so far from the vocabulary and vision of that kind of landscape. The western girl may as well be on the moon, and the divers and scientists feel this, too, according to Allspaw,
[…] if only that girl
in Colorado could grow like a glacier, if only
she could move with the freedom of icebergs.
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.
So we are again merging with the landscape, wishing what was distant could merge with the rich experience of the ice, the deep water, an experience that can make the “other” world seem superfluous.
The lessons of Antarctica continue through this volume, reflected facets of human learning from what is essentially a desert landscape. “Even ice over ice creates heat,” she teaches us. This heat and longing is what Allspaw shows us about her Antarctic life. It’s how a vast plain of snow and ice can become her father, her obsession, her life. In this book we are down-clad and trekking, we are naked and groping. We are deep in the sticky dryness of this vast southern-most continent. This long meditation gives us a gorgeous understanding of compulsion: “When we leave, / it clings, the damn child, / the obsessor, the stalker. / The ice never learned to let go.”