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In the Cold Country

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We came so trustingly, for love, but these   
Lowlands, flatlands, near beneath the sea   
Point with their cautionary bones of sand   
To exorcize, submerge us; we stay free   
Only as mermaids glittering in the waves:   
Mermaids of the imagination, young   
A spring ago, who know our loveliness   
Banished, like fireflies at winter’s breath,   
Because none saw; these vines about our necks   
We placed in welcome once, but now as wreath   
Against the scalpel cold; still cold creeps in   
To grow like ivy over our chilling bodies   
Into our blood. Now in our diamond dress   
We wive only the sequins of the sea.   
The lowlands have rejected us. They lie   
Athwart the whispering waters like a scar   
On a mirage of glass; the dooming land,   
Where nothing can take root but frost, has won.   
And what of warmth and what of joy? They are   
Sequestered elsewhere, southward, where the sun   
Speaks. For all our mermaid vigilance   
And balance, all goes under; underneath   
The land’s gray wave we falter and fall back   
To hibernate within the caves of death.


Barbara Howes, “In the Cold Country” from In the Cold Country. Copyright 1954 by Barbara Howes. Reprinted with the permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Source: Collected Poems 1945-1990 (1995)

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This poem originally appeared in the February 1949 issue of Poetry magazine

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In the Cold Country

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