A Leaf Trapped in Ice

HK Rainey reviews Genevieve Kaplan’s In the Ice House

Stasis and Motion in Genevieve Kaplan’s In the Ice House (Red Hen Press, 2011):

The ice storm

Begins on Thursday, lasts

through Sunday, is beautiful—makes

each leaf (each pattern) lonely in glass.

Under the ice hill the valley

waits. Inside the glass a pressed

leaf.

Like counting to zero. Once

again falling down in the street. The hope

of foolishness. (19)

In Genevieve Kaplan’s In the Ice House, poems both jarring and lovely elucidate the conflict between stasis and motion, anchoring and release. The title of the work places the reader alongside the narrator, within the house, trapped like a leaf in glass. Images of anchoring and stasis occur repeatedly within the poems, from the rejection of change in “Epigraph” (“County lines shift over time but we’re/ not so fragile.”) to the title of one of the final poems of the collection, “Last night, you said, wait here.” Throughout, the reader maintains the sense that the narrator is unable to leave this place, the ice house, even when the poems themselves are roaming the landscape or barreling past the windows “against a keel of wind.”  The narrator’s stasis is the immovable object the poems break themselves against. What remains after this conflict of motion and paralysis are the shattered images that construct these poems. Thus, the poems reflect in their construction the very nature of the ice storm that forms the core of the collection’s aesthetic. Consider the imagery of the following poem:

The ice storm

How jarring it could be.

(Light thickens and descends)—

A drift along the river. A lace

curtain in a black window. (39)

The ice storm itself is not explained. It has buried the images that could have been used to explain it under white space, reminiscent of snow. We know simply that the storm is jarring, outside the norm. Our imaginations fill in the details of this “jarring,” absent any solid structures to direct us. Though the poem gives us a static sentence, our working imaginations provide movement that only occurs within the realm of thought. Additionally, images of light (both thickening and descending) and the “drift along the river” (the drift unmoving, in opposition to the flowing river) illustrate motion, while the “curtain in a black window” is the stable force: attached to the window, as immobile as the house to which it belongs. Such is the complexity of Kaplan’s prose, that even most of these few lines are extraneous: the icing on the cake. Only one line is needed to illustrate the poem’s focal idea of motion conflicting with stasis:

A drift along the river. (39)

Even further, a single word in that line, “drift”, is all that is needed to express the idea of the conflict between motion and stasis because it contains both. The definition of the word “drift” involves motion (“an act or instance of being driven or carried along, as by a current of air or water or by circumstances”). It is almost an onomatopoiea. We can feel its motion hidden in the sound of the word. We think of wood drifting along a current, or a drifter moving from town to town. However, the actual drift intoned in the poem is not motion, but the result of motion. Kaplan’s drift lies beside the river, a bank of snow, unmoving, while the river flows past it. So beautiful in its simplicity, this single word encapsulates the entire theme of the book within five letters. It is this compact clarity, this subtle subtext of emotional turmoil, at which Kaplan excels. She has mastered the containment of Niedecker and paired it with the analytic lyric of poets like Celan. The poem is very near to an exact science: too few words would have the sharpness of ice without the softening nature of snowdrifts and landscape; too many would undermine the feeling of confinement upon which the text depends.

I often wondered how, when Kaplan’s poems dealt so much with the outside realm (the landscape, the mountains, the street and the neighborhood), I could feel that the narrator was speaking from a position of captivity. Much more is said about the “out of doors” than what is inside, yet by the end of the book, I did not feel as if I had traveled a step. Part of the answer lies with Kaplan’s choice of what is described in the moment of its happening, and what is described as a remembrance. Poems such as “The one that calls to me and the one I request by name” involve images that are not concrete, that leave room for error and interpretation, as if the actions are being remembered, not performed:

Not exactly a tree or a river, not exactly a squirrel,

a redwood grown soft in the breeze, a trail

heading off from the soth end—

by the time we arrive, the grasses will have darkened, (18)

The negatively-charged phrase “not exactly” alerts us that the narrator is not currently viewing the objects in the poem, but reconstructing them after the fact, (or perhaps even before the fact, or absent the fact) where the actual object becomes muddled, or possibly replaced by another object from a different memory. It is easy to imagine we are sitting by the window of the house, looking at a tree that reminds us of other trees we have seen. The verb choices Kaplan makes further support this hypothesis. “By the time we arrive,” has the present-tense implications of what is currently happening; but it is negated by the future perfect tense of “the grasses will have darkened,” that immediately follows. Kaplan also uses phrases that suggest stasis at the same time she uses words of action and motion, which could explain the reader’s perception of a lack of actual physical movement:

If repetition isn’t accidental and we find ourselves stuck

in time, while the rush of the stream shudders on

the murmur of music. The squirrel chased

by the black bird hidden in the oak leaves.

Hey, young love, I query. Over here. (18, italics mine)

The words, “stuck in time” directly precede the “rush of the stream” giving the reader the unsettling feeling of stopping and starting, while the squirrel is being “chased by the black bird” who doesn’t actually appear to move from the tree in which he is hidden. The bird cannot both give chase and remain “hidden in the oak leaves.” Not only this, but the word oak conjures images of the tree itself, anchored to the ground by a vast system of immovable roots. These stanzas mirror the probability that a static narrator’s imagination is the only thing that moves. The “outside” reflected in her poems comes to her, not she to it:

The birds

For fish that fly, and birds, a noise

awakened in the street. No way

to mend their beer-battered wings. Their

short sighs in the street,

so far from my own room. (34)

The reader, also, has not moved, but remains with the narrator inside the ice house, confined by outside elements.

There is more going on in In the ice house than motion inside the poems, however. The reader must also consider the motion of the poems as they proceed to the end of the text. This, too, Kaplan has turned on its head. We begin at night, in the oncoming of the evening, with “A pace that quickens as night goes on”:

The day long last reclining

the night crouching down (16,17)

and end at the dawn in the final poem, “The birds”:

The birds

Rise before the sun, rise with

the sun, constantly. (85)

Thus, throughout the work, we feel as if we are moving backward. The seasons, too, are in reverse. Though the majority of the book is about the winter ice storm—its effects on the landscape and the city— the text begins with a poem of spring, after the snow is receding:

Begin by counting sheep, white buds

on the plant as they appear

Small, white flowers will appear and so we wait for them.

The sky is calm today, the air watchful (24).

These lines mark the beginning of spring, the “white buds” that are ready to appear, and clue us in to the narrator who seems to be ruminating on events that have already occurred. She is rethinking, perhaps, the events of the year, trying to ascribe meaning to them in retrospect. I envision the quietness of winter being replaced with the hustle and bustle of spring: flowers are poking their heads from the frozen ground, neighbors are venturing outside their houses at last. Children are laughing in the streets and cars begin again to whir by. While nothing seems to move during the ice storm (“If anyone dares to go out, it is you,/ the fantastic one”), once the winter has ended,

The wind comes, there is never a time

We don’t hear the cars brushing past, the pushing air. (25)

The days of the storm itself have been mixed up when they are referenced in the text. While a chronological approach would mention the days preceding the ice storm and then the days following, Kaplan first suggests what follows the storm (the spring), then the actual storm (which “begins on Thursday, lasts/ through Sunday”), and then the day preceding the storm:

And when the train blew by against a keel

of wind. That was Wednesday. (38)

Like a man trapped in an avalanche, who, when covered with snow, does not know which way is up and which is down, we are flung about, snowblind in the blizzard, unable to tell the days or recall with specificity the events we have endured. Like the narrator, for us, things are unraveling. Everywhere, we see things unhappening:

the sound of the bells unringing (27)

each breath of air retreating

where the blame lays (76)

each wave of wind

stacking up. And backing down. (52)

One day

the plants are dying and the next

they are alive. (82)

And yet, there are some outside the ice house that still possess the benefit of direction:

Some can make plans,

fly forward, fine. (51)

As with all ground-breaking works of literature, what is said is not all that is meant. There must also be, along with elegant imagery and simplicity of language, a subtext that teems with all the things we cannot say. For Kaplan, that subtext insinuates a relationship that is slowly falling to ruin. The reader is first introduced to this subtext in the “Epigraph” (its similarity in sound to “epitaph” cannot here be overlooked):

1.     Cruelty in the new west, like cruelty

in the old, begins at home (with the) misuse

of lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves. There’s no

telling.

County lines shift over time but we’re

not so fragile. Quaint enough we’re allowed

to be a part of it. Facing the musty window (fingerprints, creases,

barbarism)—how many miss it?

2.     The mirror in my mouth, I hope, won’t betray a thing.

3.     There’s a danger in beauty, a net in the sea, a kite in the sky, a bird in the tree. (11)

The epigraph contains words suggesting negative emotions. These emotions appear in images within the poems that follow: cruelty, misuse, barbarism, betrayal, danger. Why does Kaplan want us, at the very beginning, to consider cruelty and barbarism? Why does she want the reader to be aware of the “misuse/ of lightbulbs, wedding rings, microwaves” and the cruelty that always “begins at home?” Because, within the images of the crumbling house is also the subtext of a failing relationship, where both parties are trapped inside the relationship structure as if it were a house:

the bird feeder gone to ruin

the tomatoes to their pots

the home itself sinking slowly

so the destruction is literal (16).

While the ice storm rages outside (“the sky hitched to night and the sky battered with its own leaves to bruising”), the lovers are reduced to routine statements such as, “What do we want for dinner?” (27) and “don’t forget/your keys” (33). Inside the solid, pleasing structure of the house, a quiet battle rages within the narrator. Can there ever be anything different? Can things change for the better? She wonders:

Might we try a new room? A new sound?

Both are unkind.

The dirt piles

shift. (32)

In the end, the resolution of the relationship (staying in the house, or leaving) is not the important thing. The time to ruminate over questions of what might be is what’s desired. Relationships don’t always end suddenly and without warning. Sometimes, they slowly dissolve. Waiting out the ice storm requires one thing: waiting. The snow must recede, the winter must end, we must wait for things to grow again. Thus, the text does not offer us any satisfying closure or definitive decisions regarding the subtextual relationship its pages alternately both reveal and conceal. Rather, the text’s ending mimics the reality of living: we wake up, we get the coffee, we look out the window, we breathe in and out. Some days, nothing happens. Other days, we happen. But always, the sun is there, going up and going down. The day begins. The day ends:

In the way of bringing something home when one returns, removing

oneself can be a gesture, the good way

to end. See the sun? (32)

H.K. Rainey is the author of Memory House. She co-curates the Anger Management & Revenge reading series in San Francisco. She currently lives and writes in Hanceville, Alabama.

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