‘Little Oblivion’ by Susan J. Allspaw

  • COLDFRONT RATING: three-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: Elixir Press, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: Stephanie Ann Whited


“what a moon sounds like under ice”


Susan Allspaw’s work as a technical writer and “information security professional” sent her to Antarctica four times over the course of 13 years. In that span, she wrote the 50 poems that would comprise her alluring and spacious debut, Little Oblivion, winner of 12th Annual Elixir Press Poetry Award.

In Little Oblivion, Allspaw and her companions explore the edges of their personal worlds. Apparently there’s an expanse at the edge, where each individual can face himself or herself at the expense of the familiar. With a mission and duties in an alien land, there’s a chance to examine what the mind has brought. From “Survival School”:

This is a place of transformation.

Out here, it is easier to believe you can speak away your fears,
let them hang on their air in front of you, fall
to be buried by the next storm.

There’s a soothing of (and even longing for) other weathers when on the ice:

…blizzard is as close to monsoon as we can get,
an easy, air-filled drowning.

Allspaw begins the book with a predicament she must face on the ice. Already managing certain foreseen obstacles, she is also forced to navigate her father’s death in “Heading into Dion Island, Antarctica”:

Twenty centimeters of ice below the bow,
seven knots, and the barometer falls on us like bad news.

Writing the dead is not easy when we are on the way
to count penguins and their eggs…

Pity dead fathers
can’t see us trawling for science, wanting to write home…

I can’t reach him through the salt water.
Sea smoke, my father. Brash churned with tide.

There’s an acknowledgement that no matter how deep their need for a locale as remote as Antarctica, and no matter how much longer they will stay, they are not home. In several poems, she writes on the homes her peers have left behind, and just as important, their immediate relations with the ice. From “The Body of Ice Remembered:”

Tomorrow he will go to the ice edge
and jump in with both feet
with a girl’s face hiding just behind his concentration.

Even with the heaviness of personal plights, there’s also a lightness and playfulness in Little Oblivion, a chance for new adventures and fulfillment of fantasies that could only happen on the ice. From “Not for the Krill:”

Jenny dives because if she could,
she would breathe water, light photosynthesizing
through ice, that inverted pillow.

This is not about the krill or their numbers.
This is about what a moon sounds like under ice,
what a coyote howl will do to a current moving east.

Which is exactly the point: the coyote’s howl will not affect the direction of the current, and going to the ends of the earth will not change the reality of where she comes from or what she’s leaving. All that ambiguity can be sultry. In “When Ice Catches Daylight, Addiction,” musings on salt licks, snowflakes and ice sheets ebb into a sexy expository: 

Like sheets hot with love, they keep us

buoyant, filled with riding current
that must be like that beginning of sex,

slow breathing, air colder than any part
of the body, and when the equilibrium comes,

Equally air and water, we steady
into it.

Little Oblivion is a beautiful read with striking confessions and characters, but the most striking aspect of the book is the ice itself. The scenery is so rich it leverages certain poems that might come off sentimental or too casually arranged if moved to another setting; the deep freeze permits all kinds of contemplation. While most of us will never make it to the Antarctic, Little Oblivion’s depth and honesty help us feel closer to knowing what it’d be like to traverse an unforgiving terrain while facing the landscapes of our own minds, and then to have to come home again. How different would home be? Could we separate what was different because home changed without us, or what was different because we think we have changed? It’s clear one can only bring back what’s in the mind–anything else would melt. From “The Rabbit Hole in the Ross Sea:”

Even though falling in
is a possibility, even though
this land holds nothing we can take,
in this hole, wonderland stops.
When we wake up,
the snow in our boots melted,
we return to traffic and newspapers,
Antarctica will be our looking glass.
We will wish we had jumped in
when we had the chance.