The following poem is excerpted from Meltwater by Claire Wahmanholm, forthcoming March 2023 from Milkweed Editions.
It is everywhere. It is the water I am trying to teach my daughters to float in. It is the sky I tell them to keep their eyes on. It is the air I tell them to seal in their mouths should they slip underwater. I am a leaky boat, but I am trying to answer their questions. As deep as thirty Christmas trees. As deep as twenty giraffes standing on each other’s backs. There hasn’t been a sea here for seventy-five million years. I cannot explain that number. My daughters’ ankles are sinking into the beryl water. No one can float forever. On the map, pushpins skewer patches of icy green like rare moths. I am trying to say it’s too late without making them too sad. It’s like how you can’t take the blue out of the white paint, like how you can’t hear your name and not turn around. The calving of glaciers is the loudest underwater sound on Earth. I dip my daughters’ ears beneath the surface to let them listen. It’s like how you can’t put a feather back on a bird, like how the bird won’t fit back into its shell. We step backward into the house. I wring the glacier out of their suits. I wring it out of their hair. I wipe it from their faces, but it is everywhere. It is the storm, it is the drowned harbor, it is the current, it is the bathwater that the baby slurps before we can stop her. The horizon rises. It rains. The glacier hammers the roof, the glacier soaks a corner of the bedroom ceiling, which greens with spores. On the map, the pushpins hover over green air, the green air is a spreading shroud. The storm surges ashore, mercurial and summer smelling. We are not accustomed to the sea, so we describe it like a sky. The waves are tornado green and loud. In the water, the polar bears look like clouds.
With bad news rising algorithmically to the top of everyone’s social media feeds, it has never been easier to despair about the state of the world. Of course there are times when I feel guilty about having brought children into a world that seems increasingly precarious. But I say “seems” because, considering the scope of human history, there is no better time to be alive.
The Our World in Data project, spearheaded in 2011 by University of Oxford economist Max Roser, was designed to highlight this very fact, and to ensure that we don’t lose sight of our power to make the world better. As Roser asserts in a blog post published in July, “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better. All three statements are true at the same time.” Progress, whether social or scientific, does not happen on its own. It happens because we believe it is possible.
Ultimately, I had children because I have not given up on the idea that this world — terrifying and sad as it often is — is worth living in. Because there were things I thought worth experiencing: lilacs; pizza; reading; the feeling of excitement, of stretching, of relief after panic; the ocean; watching a child grow up; watching a rocket launch into space. I had children because I thought that things were, on balance, more positive than negative — that there were more opportunities for exhilaration than for terror; more opportunities for wonder than for suffering. And while I would like to say that I brought them here for solely their benefit, I also knew they would enrich my life beyond measure.
I have come to realize that I write poetry for similar reasons. If I truly believed that eco- collapse, social injustice, gun violence, or any of the other anxieties in Meltwater were inevitable, I wouldn’t write at all. I would curl into a ball and indulge in whatever escapist fantasies I needed in order to detach from the world. But poetry acts as a covenant between me and the world. It is a daily effort that arises out of a desire to honor and archive what is being — or what is at risk of being — lost: the finless porpoise, the Sumatran rhino, the 10 million hectares of rainforest destroyed each year.
But there is money to be made, and as long as cattle farming, firearm sales, poaching, and drilling are viable enterprises under capitalism, they will continue. Those who benefit from those industries rely on our collective numbness, exhaustion, and inertia to pursue their agendas. And so I think that one of the responsibilities of art is to keep suffering, injustice, and atrocity sharp and shocking. It is the poet’s job to create new methods, new modes, of encountering these threats. Ecopoetry — which is one of the traditions that Meltwater participates in — should not tell us it is too late; it should remind us of the stakes of acting like it is. It should be as fortifying as a deep breath before a plunge. And so, though it is a heavy book in many ways, I have come to see Meltwater as a hopeful one as well.
Meltwater is built around two sequences of poems — a sequence of erasures, all titled “Meltwater,” and a sequence of prose poems, all titled “Glacier.” The glacier sequence takes place in a quasi-speculative future, one where there are only a handful of glaciers left in the world. The “Glacier” reprinted here is the last glacier poem in the book. The italicized sentences toward the beginning of the poem are ways of visualizing the global rise in sea level if all the world’s glaciers were to melt simultaneously. — Claire Wahmanholm