The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden

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In the same way that a mausoleum door bars entrance to the living, thus emphasizing the cemented barrier between the alive and the dead, Katy Didden’s debut poetry collection, The Glacier’s Wake, begins with a titular frontispiece which challenges the reader to work for admission into the landscape of grief she creates. Establishing the text’s most crucial metaphor of the glacier as a symbol of grief and the grieving process itself, Didden observes that accepting death is like “[waiting] in a cell of air/for the year to melt each brittle inch/into what’s green” (1). So, too, must the reader wait for progress—of both the passage of time and the turning of pages—in order to fully access the work’s complete purpose. From the broadest holistic perspective, The Glacier’s Wake serves two chief purposes: as a tripartite textual representation of the individual’s experience with trauma as well as a meditation on the process of living, the collection acts as both a quasi-biography of anyone who has experienced grief and a diagram of the varied planes of humanity which construct the awkward shape of being.

Beginning with the initial stages of emotional impact, part one extolls the sting of impact and perspective by way of establishing the collection’s theme of geography as a reflection of emotional state. In “Pleasure Milker,” the first poem of the section, Didden’s epigraph is of Iguazu Falls, Argentina, a location whose name means “big water” and whose mythological history references a pair of lovers whom god sentences to eternal freefall by creating the waterfalls for which the site is famous. Observing conversationally that “[y]ou’re the kind who stands still/in front of awful things and squints/as though you could see into/the god chambers of every atom in every/drop of water,” Didden situates the reader at a locus of human arrogance in order to emphasize the living’s refusal to accept death as an inevitability, our determination to deny the ephemeral nature of everything which constitutes our world, until a deluge of tragedy—a big water—condemns us to what feels like an eternity of groundlessness (5). Eight poems later, however, Didden transports the reader to Abiquiu, New Mexico, in “The Penitentes’ Morada.” A free-verse piece, “Morada” relies on the movement between figure and ground Didden creates in her historical narrative about sequestered monks to ultimately beg of the reader, “Whose merciful hands, then,/could bind us to our longing?” (17). As penitentes are snow formations which naturally occur at high altitudes, even in hot and arid locations, the poet demands an explanation of justifiable causation for the entry of grief into a life which previously appears untouchable.

Moving on from the moment of realization to the sequences of anger, denial, and desperation which characterize the turbulent center of the grieving process, part two opens with the expertly placed and aptly titled “Avalanche.” “Survivors say the snow/goes wild as whitewater/and…[w]hen the snow halts/you don’t know/which way is up,” Didden laments in her text-wide development of ice and snow as metaphors for the frigid crystallization of pain in the wake of death. Here, the precise geographical location becomes less important than the circumstance of experience, a move which reflects the governing senses of dissociation and displacement associated with loss. In this section, the poet strategically deploys religious contexts in order to question the validity of fate or a divine purpose for pain upon which Judeo-Christian theology insists. As in her assertion of “[b]ody in which we live/unsafe, and then He breaks through to/two at once, and this by violence” (“The Soldier on Routine,” 45), Didden notes the impressions of aggression and vulnerability which surround the realization of mourning when placed within the parameters of conventional religion. By using the singular “body” in conjunction with the plural “we,” the poet creates tension via syntax which suggests that the body herein references a collective and universal experience of grief as the result of a violent, sovereign deity. Conversely, in “Planetarium,” the extremities of the natural universe become an alternative theory of heaven as “Earth turns,/time inters us, simple materials all,/still reaping time-lent elements/for rare allures” (47). Observing the inherent scheme of the universe as a temporally determined cycle of life and death, or existence and nonexistence, the poet appears to find a degree of solace in the notion that every physical entity is an impermanent composition of the same “simple materials” which must be destroyed in order to perpetuate continual creation. Because this perspective offers a reason for the ever-shifting life cycle, therefore, the poet may more easily accept that “families/of the dead neglect their dues” and “[d]ust gathers/on the little altars” as even death itself must decay (“The Model Composure of the Dead,” 52).

The third section of The Glacier’s Wake, in accordance with the mechanics of its predecessors, marks the transition to acceptance which affords the poet a renewed sense of peace. Consciously noting man’s tendency to hold fast to memory and pain, thereby prolonging one’s internal healing, Didden admits that when she “should have left off grieving,/I carried you with me across the water,” the objectivity of which signifies that the speaker has begun to re-establish her equilibrium in the wake of mourning (“Lopez Island,” 55). Indeed, she calmly recognizes an overriding pattern of synchronicity in which “the [jaws’] ‘O’/of shock or orgasm” mirrors the “shape/of the earth when it registers eruption” and thus irrevocably roots all things in a principle of likeness (“Arriving at Ubehebe Crater, We Sing The Sound of Music,” 57). Attributing a newfound appreciation of purpose as a result of grief, “Skyline” positions death as an opportunity for growth, reconciling that “[i]f we achieve…the place your death is leading us,/even the common starlings will seem/to have more skill” (61). Because the nature of mortality lends itself to egocentricity, the poet’s realization that the cyclops’s eye, as a metaphor for a governing universal design, “had survived many centuries,/and it didn’t see the way I see” emphasizes her ultimate recognition of the futility in a self-aggrandizing relationship to being (“Excavating the Cyclops’ Eyesocket,” 65). Instead, the poet’s restoration allows her to relinquish the illusion of control which would otherwise prevent her from embracing the idea that love is the sole attributor of earthly value and, as such, “[o]ne by one,/we’ll veer where love compels us” (“Old Dominion,” 69). Finally, the collection’s staggering conclusion at the brilliantly executed “Perito Moreno Glacier” finds the poet free of the emotional constructs and misguided suppositions which complicate a return to normality. Employing a boat tour as a symbol of progression and departure, Didden revisits the metaphor of the glacier in order to offer a final statement on grief. Rather than continuing to depicting herself as a resident of the glacier, however, the poet here is its tourist, the politics of which indicate her emergence from captivity to freedom. Fittingly, the scene onboard is no longer one of mourning, but of celebration with “shots of whiskey on the rocks” which she raises in a victorious toast to the glacier as an agent of growth. The most startling moment, though, comes in the poem’s triumphant final lines as the glacier experiences its own transformation in response to the poet’s rejuvenation. Because the poet succeeds in conquering grief despite all the obstacles which hinder the process, she is no longer subject to its tyrannical rule. Therefore, both the speaker and Didden (if there be any distinction between the two) finally obtain the power of transcendence, and the once-hulking symbol shatters into nothing more than “a little ice between our teeth” (71).

Beyond this examination of the glacier’s function in the collection, the reader may question the absence of the work’s two other recurrent characters, the wasp and the sycamore, from the above analysis. However, these (slightly more marginal) characters’ roles only come into true focus after the full significance of the glacier emerges. Consider, for instance, section two’s suggestions of synchronicity and universal design. Given that this smaller theme comes to light in response to the work “Avalanche” performs to set the stage for a current of chaos and dissonance, one must necessarily note the transformation of the glacier and snow metaphors in order to see that the wasp represents, initially, the malicious nature of separation before becoming a figure of unification. In “The Wasp on Weddings,” for instance, the wasp divides that which is sacred in order to emphasize the unpredictability of tragedy: “’I wasp will[,] I wasp do” (24). However, by “The Wasp on the Golden Section,” the ideas of the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio, classical concepts woven throughout the text, find the wasp wedded to reconciliation and a global coherence of design, reassuring the reader that, as grief gives way to acceptance, “[t]here are arcs everywhere/in the air” (70).

Similarly, because the importance of healing does not gain the entirety of its traction until section three when the glacier diminishes, the sycamore as a representation of wisdom and upward growth finds its bearing only in response to the collection’s close. Beginning with “The Sycamore on Praise,” Didden suggests that the sycamore acts as a symbol of upward growth, of universal gratitude, in the imperative, “Praise lush soil, praise infinite patterns/of which you’re made, to which you will return” (11). Strategically placed opposite “The Glacier on the Close-Up,” this sycamore poem situates peace as a key objective of focused contemplation. By contrast, “The Sycamore on Forgiveness,” the final sycamore poem in the collection, situates anger as the focus. “[Y]ou hate the fire more/than the trains, and you blame/yourself,” Didden accuses, mastering the line in order to emphasize the impact of holding oneself responsible for uncontrollable circumstances (66). Far from representing backward motion, though, this movement from wise peace to anger adds a dimension of validity to all human experience as a source of creation; still, life will “spring from the mess you mangled” (66). Still, the wasp will find connections stretched between every shape on the planet. Still, an insurmountable glacier will become ice between your teeth. Even when you blame yourself.

Nick Morrissey majors in English Literature at the University of Tennessee. He can be reached at [email protected] More from this author →