Ice Hours by Marion Starling Boyer

Ice Hours
by Marion Starling Boyer


Wheelbarrow Books, 2023


Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk,
EIL Poetry Editor


Spring suddenly paused, temperatures dropping, so it’s perfect to have returned to Ice Hours, by Marion Starling Boyer, in my April-is-the-cruelest month celebratory poetry reading! Even the opening poem, “Perhaps I Was Eden,” gets at it, Antarctica speaking for herself:

     I was tropical once.
          Then, I became so cold

     I stripped off my clothes
          and burrowed beneath a shield of ice.

I won’t be stripping off my clothes. I’m already shivering, thanks to the language, circumstances, and gorgeous lavender and ice-blue cover of this book. Ice Hours is history, science, geography, adventure narrative, and lyric, all in one. We get to care about climate, war, individual people, polar discovery, and dogs! I ache when a one-eyed sailor says, “I feel my blood / racing too, as the ordinary, soft / life falls far behind.” And nothing has happened yet! Well, he’s lost an eye, but that was on a previous expedition. This speaker’s team, the Ross Sea Party, can’t yet imagine the hardships to come on Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole.

We meet the characters, including animals, “a damned barnyard,” in the early poem “Southing,” locating us in our journey. As Harry Ernest Wild says, in his stanza, “We look for signs / (orca and icebergs) that we’re getting near.” There’s more than one ship—the Aurora and the Endurance—and we sense we’ll need them both in urgent ways. You may already know the history, but I do love getting my history through poetry.

As poetry, Ice Hours displays dexterity and formal prowess! It’s like the hard and focused work of the explorers, with glorious, dangerous, wild, and unexpected moments of Nature and continent. An example of the latter is Antarctica, in “All My Flowers,” speaking of all the varieties of ice. “Southing” has tight, subtle, and consistent rhyme; in fact, it’s a tour de force, a crown of sonnets! “Dear Father” is, straightforwardly, a letter. There’s an erasure poem about cigarettes. Marvelous variations on various repeating forms. And epigraphs and section headings organize it all beautifully, giving context and fact. A cento, pulling from World War I poets, reminds us where we are in time. And marvelous images throughout, such as seals seen as “lazy gray sausages with puppy eyes.”

If you won’t read a book or see a movie where a dog dies, brace yourself. In the poem “Dead Dog Trail,” “One by one, the nine dogs perish.” It’s brutal. It’s brutal for the men, too. As you can imagine, there’s frostbite, hunger, and madness. Snowblindness. Loneliness. The letters home and the letters from loved ones are sorely needed, in all the ways.

Perhaps because I’m grieving right now, I keep turning to the poem “Learning Detachment,” in which a very human voice of Antarctica remembers the wholeness of the land masses on earth, before they split off into continents. Here are the last three stanzas:

     There is no language for what I want.
     I do not long for them, but something
     calls me, out there in the night.

     In the dark, the whole crevasse
     of space glinting, it helps to remember
     how South America lingered,

     her peninsula locked
     fingertip to fingertip with mine,
     holding on, until bit by bit, we slipped
     and, cold and alone, I fell away.

In August, some of us read a book of poems a day, to balance all the poetry writing in April, National Poetry Month, with plentiful poetry reading. It’s hot in August. Consider reading Ice Hours then, if not before, to cool off!

Marion Starling Boyer at EIL

Dog Days in Antarctica at EIL

Ice Hours, Wheelbarrow Books, at Michigan State University Press


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