O uncommonly sunny death . . .
—from “Meltwater” p. 13
Six thirty pm. It’s high spring in Baltimore. Everything smells of wet earth and foliage. A crowd is gathered in the back garden of The Ivy Bookshop, reading and discussing poetry. The group is spread out across the grass on colorful chairs and wooden benches and gingham picnic blankets. The sun is beginning to dip towards the highway, casting golden light over upturned faces. At the center of it all, three large hedges, deep green, resembling a high-backed throne of peacock feathers, frame a pair of readers. The scene is gorgeous. It’s borderline mythical. It feels all too picturesque for the conversation at hand: childbearing in a time of climate crisis. It is April 12, the day of The Ivy’s first Poets in the Gardens event and about a month after the publication of Claire Wahmanholm’s third full collection, titled Meltwater (Milkweed Editions, 2023).
“For as long as we could remember, / the sky had been one unending sequence of fluid, / heart-stopping sunsets.”
I wanted to begin with this ethereal (and perhaps a bit purple) snapshot of Claire Wahmanholm in conversation with Edgar Kunz because to talk about Meltwater is to talk about our place in nature. Despite the blessedly unseasonable warmth, the joy of community, and all the newly hatched bugs flaunting their shimmering multitude in beams of sunlight, the evening took on an unshakable chill in our sharing of these poems, which serve as reminders that we are not separate from the natural world, but an increasingly devastating part of it—
to be so many rabbits, we say to the child
as we move the shadow rabbits back and
forth before the firelight. We used to kill
them like they were nothing . . .
—from “More Rabbits”
In a similar vein to Wahmanholm’s previous books, Redmouth and Wilder, Meltwater acts as a sort of fable of the future. Children cut out paper animals as they listen to stories of such long extinct species as bees and rabbits; people have learned to pull their limbs off for survival; “the only kind of fruit we can still name” are grenades; travelers buy luxury cruise tickets to glimpse the world’s last iceberg, to collect a vial of its precious meltwater, and they are disappointed by what they experience. What is perhaps most unsettling about these stories is that they are based squarely in reality. Despite its terrible beauty, Meltwater is not a fantasy. It is grounded in its strangeness, extrapolating out our possible future from the very real actions (and inactions) of today’s human population. In these poems, Wahmanholm constructs, line by dripping line, the narrative of a world that is at once brutal and astonishingly banal.
In short, this collection cascades over the shoulders in a shock of cold, clean truth.
“The older you are, the harder it is to part / with yourself like this---to part the hand from the wrist. . .”
—from "In a Land Where Everything is Trying to Kill You, I Teach You to Be an Autotomist"
Despite this hyper-awareness, this gnawing desire to numb oneself to such realities as habitat destruction and the loss of bodily autonomy, it isn’t all doom and gloom in Wahmanholm’s work. After all, to focus too intently on the apocalypse would be to miss all the wonders. Likewise, to put too much emphasis on the governing body of fear is to overlook the collection’s true center: the next generation, those who will inherit the collapse. From epistolary poems directed toward a developing embryo, to cautionary tales, to poems named for letters of the alphabet (“M is for metamorphosis,” “O is for / opus,” “Once P is for plastic, it is always / for plastic”), there is a particular levity that infects the collection in spite of its dystopian tendencies. For instance, the hauntingly titled “You Will Soon Enter a Land Where Everything Will Try to Kill You” is a recognition that, yes, we are likely leaving a worse world for those children we so selfishly keep having, but it is also a poem indicative of growth, of wanting to instill better values into those children, of moving past the desire to cause undue harm—
In the world’s rich dirt
I could have planted brambles, clovers. I could have just loved
the earth instead of inventing new ways to hurt (p. 8)
When Wahmanholm read this poem in full at The Ivy, she introduced it with a sort of chuckle at the title, and laughter rippled quietly through the audience in turn. The sentiment is not an uncommon one. She very candidly shared her experiences of pregnancy, giving birth, and raising a young daughter in a post-Trump, post-Roe America, the multi-dimensional fears tied up in an already fraught process. In this regard, “You will Soon Enter…” in particular stands out, illustrating the way a parent’s joy is colored by remorse. The tone is pensive and achingly apologetic. It so clearly takes place on the precipice of destruction, but, though the speaker is afraid, she nonetheless looks out past the edge to see the beauty beyond the leap.
“This sounds like a / metaphor but isn't. I'm just talking about water”
—from "Glacier" p. 10
An especially interesting feature looming large in the waters of the collection is a disjointed series of poems all titled “Meltwater.” These are erasures that indeed appear melt down the page. They are sculpted from Lacy M. Johnson’s 2019 New Yorker article, “How to Mourn A Glacier,” a piece illustrating the memorial ceremony for Okjökull, the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status, a “dead glacier.” However, I hesitate to use the term “erasure” as it does not encapsulate all that these poems convey. In fact, Wahmanholm herself expressed some discomfort over the designation, asking reading attendees to suggest suitable replacement terms, claiming that these poems, published with the permission of the essay’s author, do not erase the original work, but rather focus it, providing a lens through which to read it. And what is this lens? It is summed up most succinctly in the following selected lines from the fourth “Meltwater” poem:
O ice cap in the shape of // all / the / lessons // we // wanted to // learn // but // didn’t
If the collection as a whole is a look towards the future, the Meltwater poems turn our gaze backwards, towards the “ice [that] stretches between us and history.” They are explorations of time and memory, imploring readers to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors in order to fashion a livable, sustainable future out of what has not yet disappeared.
Meltwater dances both with the abundances and the anxieties of our time, and it does so with practiced steps. Wahmanholm so skillfully probes the issue of human-led annihilation, but she also taps into the potential for redemption, pulling her readers “away from their own warm worlds” and inviting them into a world of limitless entanglements.
Meltwater is available now from Milkweed Editions.
Ashley Wagner is a queer writer based in Baltimore. Her writing has appeared in JAKE, Foglifter, and Paperbark Mag, among others. Her debut chapbook is out now with Bottlecap Press. You can find her work at ashleywagnerpoetry.com.
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