Ann E. Michael, PQ Contributing Editor
Press 53, 2014
Paperback, 75 pp. $14.95
Therése Halscheid’s latest collection begins with the cold: “icy flakes” and “sentence after sentence moving words/over the winter earth.” She also commences with the gathering power of both words and silences, imagery—along with images of frozen latitudes—that she strings in a loop through this book. The cycle of life is reflected in family, tribe, season, story, and language: “just enough words” is what the speaker here desires most. In these carefully-wrought poems, time freezes and the expected cycles operate uncannily, a father’s brain damage altering family expectations; Alaska’s freezing beauty altering the reader’s assumed stance; Inupiaq wisdom tales transposed to the contemporary (planes, snowmobiles); a girl’s anorexia depicted as a mirror of her father’s wasting away, and as a means of removing herself from him.
Throughout, Halscheid focuses on the physical experience of the human body in its often-harsh environment. She is effective at this strategy. Frozen Latitudes grounds the reader in the domains of place and situation fully and deeply. In some of these works, the difficult environment is Alaska; but the poems convey, too, how a person’s own body can be the hardest kind of place. Whether the poem’s speaker is an autobiographical “I,” a rosary, a chair, or a specific human heart, Halscheid’s voice evokes the physical, the real. Here, a geriatric chair “narrates” its purpose:
wherever the quiet light hits
I am to faithfully hold you
take to my leather skin
what you have become—
While, in other poems, intangibles such as memory and emotional resonance arise through evocations of the physical:
I felt her once, during an inner storm, as a certain chill ran through,
after my muscles tightened into big cold mountains
that she was arranging my ribs, arching them same as the shelters
she spoke of, in the icy north of Alaska, where they shape
whalebone over driftwood and pack it with sod.
And yet, the loss of a self, as depicted in poems of a man’s tragic brain damage, is something more metaphysical—to where does the conscious self retreat? Does it go deep into the physiological body, to be locked away? Does it become a transformative spirit, as “Clan of the Owl” in which Halscheid writes:
The way Rose tells it was like the spirit of his son
was in the form of an animal and there
was a strange light around and wind like
a slight brushing of feathers …
Or does the father’s diminishing self find its way through the body of the teenager who refuses food as her father’s brain, deprived of oxygen, refuses return to a normal sense of self? The body becomes the enemy of the self, and home an environment of loss, frozen in time.
The poems which feature actual rather than metaphorical chill balance Halscheid’s father narratives. Stories, myth, and landscape bring warmth into the poems, and the pacing and placement of these pieces work to unite the situations. Circling back to the poems that begin the book, those which cast about for the words to say, the penultimate poem admits, “I wanted to speak but needed more than words./I wanted words but the ones I thought of//held no images…” In Frozen Latitudes, the poet manages to give us words and images that can help us navigate the difficult, beautiful world.