The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden

The Glacier’s Wake
Katy Didden
Pleiades Press, 2013
80 pp. $16.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Christopher Prewitt

Ready for a non-revelation? Melissa Kwansy judged correctly: Katy Didden’s The Glacier’s Wake deserved to win the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize.

Most likely if you are a reader of contemporary poetry journals, you are no stranger to Didden’s work. Her impressive list of publications include Poetry, Pleiades, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, and Crab Orchard Review among others. But supposing you have not yet been fortunate enough to encounter a Didden poem, especially one from The Glacier’s Wake, what can you expect? Didden’s debut collection is conceit-driven. A poet makes an implicit promise with her audience when the audience encounters a conceit-driven collection. The poet promises the audience that she is intelligent, that she is insightful, and that she is ambitious. Happily, I can confirm that The Glacier’s Wake keeps that promise.

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The title poem begins the collection. Tonally, “The Glacier’s Wake” is sophisticated, and I find it refreshing, having read so much poetry concerned with ordinary speech—I mean the language of much of the poetry I’ve encountered as of late has been colloquial, not that “colloquial poetry” is inherently inferior tonally. Complex sentence structures and a series of words modified by en-dashes contribute to the sophisticated tone, the result being language that necessitates a slow, meditative reading, not unlike the pace of a glacier . See how form and content marry in the opening lines of “The Glacier’s Wake”:

Tooth-snout, blue eye, white-tongued as icy Jove
on a god-slow lay,

as alive as how I thought my grief should be—
a heaving ice field, an evaporating history

onto which, inside the crags of which,
I liked my mind to climb.

The glacial imagery here is striking. I am especially fond of “a heaving ice field.” This is but one of Didden’s poetic talents. More to the point, this opening movement constitutes the promise the collection makes: our speaker will return to the glacier—after all, that’s where “I liked my mind to climb”—and the intense passage of grief, an experience any witness to a wake can tell you is intense in both length and sensation, will be a thematic concern. To name but a few instances, glaciers appear or are referenced in “String Theory: Pyramus and Thisbe,” “The Glacier o the Close-Up,” “Northwest Passage,” and “The Glacier on the Lack of Sleep.” Grief manifests in a number of ways throughout the collection. I am partial to “The Sycamore on Praise”:

You’re a speck. You aren’t meant to last.
Seeing death everywhere, you can choose
despair, blunt your roots on rocks, accuse
the cold wind as it lashes your limbs
. . . Or, you can watch yourself change,
marvel at how death mottles you with strange
spots, wrinkles your skin and plumps your veins.

Here grief is myopic. To witness the physical transformation one undergoes while aging, though it is decay, is to be marveled rather than feared or lamented. To what does this amount? Simply put, Didden evidences throughout this collection that she is intelligent, insightful, and ambitious, that she wants an audience committed to the voyage—the word voyage is apt because Didden’s intelligence, insightfulness, and ambition brings to mind another intelligent, insightful, and ambitious poet, Hart Crane. Friends, I do not say that lightly.

You may have noticed in the quoted passages some of Didden’s poetic gifts. Alliteration, simile, and imagery are among those gifts. I am also fond of Didden’s slant end rhymes, like choose and accuse, and harder rhymes, like change and strange. Commenting on these qualities might strike you as being rather obvious and concerned with rudimentary facets of poetry so that they teeter on being redundant. However, and please never lose sight of this again if you have previously, this is the music of poetry. Didden understands this. Consider these lines from “Mind’s-Eyed Island” :

and I’m glad there’s somewhere we can’t wreck,
where earth’s beginning gets re-set.

Music lives in these lines. Friends, where music is lost so, too, is poetry. But never fear: Didden’s ear, as they say, is finely tuned, and, more importantly, so, too, are her heart and mind.

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