The Ice Storm

By Christian Wiman b. 1966 Christian Wiman
Then all one day because of ice
they couldn't make it down the hill.
Or up, James says,
dabbing at a spill
of coffee, crunching toast as if it had a spine.
But he could work, at any rate,
could concentrate
on that book he's been reading,
or meaning to,
the flu—
or was it famine?—of '49,
some smoldering fact
he's found in the cold ash of some war.
Gusting upward, lobes and nose on fire,
his whole face florid
from the heart attack
he's somehow never had,
he sways, repeating:
Oh, we'd get down just fine,
I expect, but we'd never make it back,
then goes into his room and shuts the door.

Eva's hours have nearer ends.
She heats the little disk the cat sleeps on;
chips, until her hands are gone,
the glaze off all the feeders for the birds;
then writes two friends
to thank them for the birthday chocolates they've sent.
The word alone makes her stomach burn.
Which is mostly what age is, she's learned,
the senses sharpening backwards,
keen to what they can't perceive,
when to be wise means mostly not to wish
for what you love,
for what you love is pain:
spices or coffee, gin
bringing the evening light into your veins,
good chocolates the grandkids ravish
like a horde of crows.
You stuff your bellies with tomorrow's ache,
she can almost hear him bellow,
nipping and pinching to make them squeal.
Hot water with honey, one coddled egg, dry saltines:
Oh, what difference does it make?
She picks up the chocolates, breaks
the seal.


He draws the blinds on a wall of glass,
winces at the glare,
drags his chair
into the bright crevasse
between his bed and bookshelf,
takes a deep breath of air,
and buries himself
in one of the early wordy furies
of William Gladstone,
never a man for minor keys.
Creak and tick of the burdened limbs.
A creak and tick inside of him
as he crosses his legs and then uncrosses them,
shifts his weight to ease
the stiffness in one side,
turns a page like a summit he has climbed,
and breathes...
Think of it—twenty thousand books devoured
in Gladstone's life, and of his own
enough to keep an army of bibliographers occupied;
a whole age and empire crammed into one man:
spellbinding crowds until he couldn't stand,
felling his million trees,
filling six decades' worth of diaries
because a life is owed as well as owned, time
a gift of which a good man gives account;
who would mount,
night after night, a moral, high-rhetorical siege
upon some poor Haymarket tart
in whom ruin
and beauty were one word,
then go home and whip himself for a sin
that, all the evidence suggests, never occurred
but in his heart.


And has just one,
pleasure spreading through her blood like a single drop
of ink.
She scours the stove and countertop,
bleaches coffee stains off the sink,
cleans leaf by leaf
the emerald ripple and the paradise palm,
both mostly dormant now,
reaches high for the philodendron, huge since trained to climb,
and pauses,
remembering the calm
of constant motion that her mother was—
a beauty, men said, though it hardly seemed
a part of her, looking out of her own face
like someone on a train;
and remembering, too,
the child-high hedgerows
alone the lane
behind their house on Paddox Close,
the slice of sky above
growing wider as she grew,
the little park with its central statue
(who was it of?),
which, last time she'd seen,
weather had worried
to a Swedish ivy sort of green.


Emma Clifton, Elizabeth Collins, P. Lightfoot—
even the names of those women are there
amid the parliamentary proceedings,
bulldog scholarship, affairs
of state.
He lifts his hand like a weight
to check his watch, little trembles traveling through his bones
into the air
as through plucked strings
a sound.
Two hours until the final round
at Palm Springs,
with its hairpin fairways, lacquered greens,
and that great eighteenth in homage
to Bobby Jones.
What a character!—touring in his teens,
retired at twenty-eight
with nothing left to win,
at forty storming Normandy with men
half his age.
Even his death was rare—
syringomyelia—cane to brace to wheelchair
without a trace of self-pity, regret, rage:
We all have to play the ball as it lies.
How much of a man's revealed in how he dies...
Poor Owen, barely sixty, Dean of the College,
a decent book on Kant behind him:
two days of chest pain
slivering into a lifetime's knowledge
and all the old beliefs
come flooding back,
silly relics and rituals, griefs
you're born into, some guilt you can't even name.
"Ischemia," that's exactly right: blood lack.


Sweet pickles and white bread,
salted ham,
a soybean spread
that is his one concession to his heart,
two butter cookies, plum jam:
she clicks
across the polished floor
through motes that rise
and float like molecules of light,
pausing outside his door,
hearing the Mahler chorus to which he always cries,
plays to cry, she suspects,
as if even sadness could be planned.
She takes the knob in her hand,
sees, inside its shine,
white tablecloths, crystal cut fine
as jewels,
and, and... and a man
with American shoulders and vowels,
that face
so open it wasn't, like the ocean,
and that tidal way he had of filling any space
that wasn't taken,
the table where she sat with friends,
afternoons and weekends,
classrooms, boardrooms, lecture halls,
the very bodies of their children,
in whose broad limbs he seems to sprawl.
Was that what she had fallen for,
talk of golf, and Oxford, and roast beef
in that gray decade after the war,
that it seemed so safe
a fall?


There—where the strings go silent
and that woman's whole soul
is in her throat...
A home can have but one composer.
Wasn't that the quote?
That long ironclad letter Mahler wrote
to Alma, the most exquisite
woman in Vienna, who packed
away that cold contract,
her party dresses, and her own precocious technique,
and settled, if you could call it that,
into the role
of being Gustav Mahler's wife:
I am not happy, and yet not unhappy.
My ship is in the harbor, but it has sprung a leak.
But he loved her; and she is in his music
as surely as the God
he never quite possessed nor fully lost,
as surely as the daughter is alive
inside this song, whose life
it cost.
Gladstone also had a daughter die at five.
Odd,
not to have thought of that before.
And Mahler's sisters name was Anna,
and Gladstone's sister Ann;
and wasn't Mrs. Gladstone's family from Oxford, or near?
Oh, William dear,
she told him once, if you weren't such a great man, you'd be a terrible bore.


Was that a laugh or a sob?
Mahler dies off
into the long silences, polite applause,
and weirdly reverential tones of golf.
This could take all day.
She lets go of the knob,
backs away.


He looks up as if he's heard a sound—
what was it called,
that late-medieval game out of which golf evolved?
He looks down:
O'Connor's on the second tee,
It must have started earlier than he thought,
Steady head, steady head,
that pro at Sea Pines always said.
James lifts one hand above his knee,
so palsied now
he can't keep his cocktails quiet,
as if every instant were a shock
his body took.
Think of a stake
driven through your skull into the ground.
California fades into some salesman fool
he mutes
to spend three minutes
amid the doomed midcentury debates
on Home Rule:
Gladstone, suicidally brilliant at eighty-four—
One fight more,
the best and the last...
He looks up to see a ball
that's made of feathers struck
with something like a gardening tool
and flying fast
toward what, in the moment before he blinks,
is a cemetery gate.
Hurley or shinty, he thinks
as it falls.
In northern France they called it soule.


Head bowed,
her face in pieces
on the table, she seems,
as she gathers and releases
a little storm of gleams
from her hands, to wield the sun she's in.
Nineteen fifty-four it would have been
when James's parents gave them these. Proud,
so proud they were—
of their heirloom silver, their tidy house, Michigan,
her,
whom they kept introducing as James's bride,
though she was nearly five months gone by then.
She draws the cloth between the light and knife,
freezes.
How strange—to feel a life
that is and isn't yours
shift inside,
After the first brittle exchanges that day,
hot dogs and crisps, tours
of their property, their church, James's high school
where they first learned their private awe was real,
his mother rattling on in that white-noise way
that women will
when silence, like men,
is simply one more thing to fill—
Eva had nodded, and smiled,
and hovered just outside of her own skin,
trying to feel
that life inside of her again.


The dogleg seventh. A tough par five,
the fairway pared
to nearly nothing at its kink,
ramping up to inkblot bunkers and a pulpit green.
O'Connor times a drive
so pure and powerful the ball becomes the air—
a blue nowhere
for a long moment on the screen—
distilling white on its descent
into the rough.
Straight enough,
the commentator says, but overplayed,
going on to praise the progress O'Connor's made
since that wild tirade
two years ago on this same course,
the midnight tabloid accident
in which he broke both hands.
The camera pans
the fairway and milling gallery,
probes a dense, occluded spot
under a tree.
As if a man could simply start all over,
as if you couldn't read one character
in everything he does.
What was it Mahler said of Alma's early love—
Even his music has a weak chin.
O'Connor, lost in leaves, eye on the pin,
scalds a shot
past every limb but one,
which, after a comic chaos
of ricochets,
trickles back exactly where it was.
The Perilous Ambition
was Bobby Jones's phrase,
which is to aim at what you were
despite the hazard you are in.


Anna calls,
the fifth time in as many days,
some childhood memory of a sauce
for pears;
thirty minutes later calls again
to chat about the ice
she's seen on television,
one brother's ruined marriage,
another's move across
the country, cutting a careful trace
around the silence
of her second miscarriage
in as many years
until there is no word that's not that loss.
A walk, I think. You too, Mom. Tell Dad hi.
Goodbye.


This stiffness in one side,
the telephone ringing and ringing,
the damn birds racketing
as if it were spring—
he's up, listing a moment while the tide
of blood comes back into his brain,
a fine pain
needling through his chest and down one shoulder,
which is what he should have told her,
he thinks, with as much a smile
as he can manage, that pretty girl he stumbled into in the aisle
of the grocery store,
who had pink-streaked hair, a pierced nose, and swore
by acupuncture:
that his body had, in a sense, acquired its own.
Point by point he feels the pain withdraw.
Like a world disturbed in water,
his bed and bookcase, the centuries on the shelves,
the television, and his own unsteady limbs
waver back into themselves.
Gladstone,
he thinks, striding across the room,
that mix of filial relief and Protestant rage
the great man felt for his sister, healed of lockjaw
and tremblings by the knucklebone
of a saint.
He stops, so close that he can see
each nub and flaw
in the white paint
of the door.
He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly.
What's one hour more.


Forks and spoons and knives.
Fingers, hair, face.
What survives,
she wonders, rising suddenly toward the window,
of James's parents' place:
the vegetable garden and the screened-in porch,
the driveway bumping toward
the blacktop, as they called it,
splintering into a million little nameless roads
through the countryside
that she and James didn't so much drive
one frozen night so long ago
as glide.
She puts her fingers on the cold pane:
the iron deck chairs, the railings and the ground below,
each least tip of every tree,
all wrought to the same fine fragility
of glass.
Where were they?
She feels a quicksilver current in her nerves,
feels it pass.
Was there some way
to have prepared for this—
the childhood walks; the first lilt and flirt
of a voice she hardly recognized as hers;
that kiss
outside her front door
after James had met her parents, the taste
of something, tea, yes;
and more,
Amherst, New Haven, Ann Arbor,
vast tracts of life like landscape glimpsed from a car;
even labor,
Lord, vise of time
tightening, tightening, tearing you in two
until that one pain is all you are...
—these brief gleams in the mind.
And who would guess
that as the years find
their final focus you're bothered less
by the dark that lies ahead of you
than the dark that lies behind?


But who'd refuse a healing for its source?
Up, up
the slick eighteenth a strong putt climbs,
rounds
the lip of the cup
so deeply half the ball's inside,
emerges
only to slide
all the way back down.
Tough course, tough course.


North, night, late, and the branches fraught
with ice as they are now;
first one owl
like an oboe in the upper dark,
low, stark,
then farther off another;
and how,
as the time between their cries grew wide,
they never moved,
as if what each one sought
was not the other
but the distance that the other was,
and cried
but to align their silences.


He lifts his eyes:
a last stab of light from the icy trees.
Tomorrow this will all be gone.
The limbs will unclench, the ground give,
and the melt
from branchtip and rooftop tick, tick all day long
like a rain.
Why did you suffer? Why did you live?
Things fever out of their forms again,
and he sees, blurred
into the list of names on the screen,
the first golfer of whom there's record,
King James of the Iron Belt,
who died in arms on the fields of Flodden.
Live long enough and all thoughts go one way—
Gladstone, cancer hiving his face,
turning on that last railway platform to say:
God bless you all, and this place,
and the land you love;
Mahler, harrowed and honed by the fever
he'd soon die of:
I am hungrier for life than ever.
Even this muted Midwestern woman
purging germs
on tv brings his mother back,
her eyes emptying, her chest ripped apart
by doctors frantically massaging that starved heart,
which feels, he's read somewhere, like a seethe of worms.


Let it go.
Let the silver lie scattered as it is,
dinner unprepared.
Let an hour go by in glimpses
of the old oak iced in light like a chandelier,
titmouse and sparrow,
a cardinal like a cut the tree releases
calling what-cheer, cheer, cheer.
What is the cry she can't recognize?
What time is it now,
a prow
of last light slicing through the deep shadow
of the living room where she lies,
opera on public radio,
while the cat purrs
into the warm crook of limbs it's found,
and the deep-water heartbeat sound inside of sound
is hers,
the kiss still on her lips
as she slips
inside after the last goodbyes,
where her long-dead father from behind his paper mutters
You can bet they call him Jim,
and her mother, later, even quieter,
Do you love him?


Let it go.
Let the dead recede
into their names,
effect lie quiet with its cause.
In the end,
what difference does it make,
another day in grains,
walls a gauze
through which fine, faint voices bleed.
It will all come clear tomorrow.
Let the ache
that feels like acid rising in his chest
as he lies down on his bed to rest
from what it seems he's just begun
be only that.
Let it be done,
if not for good then for now,
if for good then with grace somehow,
the screen
flickering with whatever victory or defeat
one can always read about,
evening intensifying inside and out
until there is no pane between,
his eyes becoming heavy, and all he knows
grown light,
as he lets them—Eva?—close.

Christian Wiman, "The Ice Storm" from Hard Night. Copyright © 2005 by Christian Wiman.  Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.

Source: Hard Night (Copper Canyon Press, 2005)

Biography

Poet, translator, editor, and essayist Christian Wiman was raised in West Texas and earned a BA at Washington and Lee University. He received an honorary doctorate from North Central College.
 
Making use of—and at times gently disassembling—musical and metrical structures, Wiman often explores themes of spiritual faith and doubt in his spare, precise poems. Praising Wiman’s “ear for silence” in a review of Every Riven Thing for . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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