“Yes, but it’s not actually poetry,” I scold myself.
“Just because it sounds and feels exactly like poetry by times doesn’t make it poetry, you know! There’s rules!”
“Methinks the blogger doth protest too much,” I give in drily.
This is the mental debate I’ve been having over one of the kindest gifts I’ve ever received, a signed copy of Twelve Kinds of Ice written by Ellen Bryan Obed (author of Borrowed Black), and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Ellen Bryan Obed generously sent me a copy of Twelve Kinds of Ice, a book of hers I hadn’t yet read, and receiving it was just like getting a steaming cup of hot cocoa after you come inside from tobogganing or, of course!, skating on a cold winter day. The same grateful feeling, the same comfort. (And read to the end: since I got this for free, I’ll be giving away a copy myself to pass on the kindness.)
Despite the comfort of reading it, though, I had, and continue to have, this internal debate: Why does it feel so much like reading poetry?
Well, all right, I grudgingly allow that part of that is due to expectation. I grew up with Borrowed Black and Wind in my Pocket and they formed me as much as, by contrast, Neil Gaiman tells us that he was by Doctor Who and Batman in his own childhood. Which is to say: they shaped me. And they were poetry. Going back to Ellen Bryan Obed, it’s very logical that I should expect more poetry. Yes, very logical.
That’s the easy explanation. The harder one to pin down is the experience of the first page:
The First Ice
The first ice came on the sheep pails in the barn– a skim of ice so thin that it broke when we touched it.
Read that aloud (go on, you’re probably alone in the house and your cat won’t tell on you; never feel ashamed to read aloud), and tell me for sure that you aren’t reading poetry. You aren’t sure, are you? It seems to have some metre to it, but you aren’t sure what it is, is that it? Are you trying to scan it, but you’re stumbling over whether “first” or “ice” is stressed?
I hope you’re experiencing some befuddlement or other, because I don’t want to be entirely alone here.
It’s like when you’re reading Dickens and suddenly stumble onto a passage which feels a little out of sync with the rest, and then you realize it’s basically in iambic pentameter. “Oh, well, that explains it,” murmurs a voice in my brain. Except that there’s no iambic pentameter up there: well, there could be if you rewrote it a little–
The first ice came on sheep pails in the barn
A skim of ice so thin it broke when touched
Which would ruin the whole thing. That beautiful caesura of the m-dash! And with that thought, it clicked. It’s not (quite) accentual-syllabic poetry. It could be. Ellen Bryan Obed has proven again and again that she’s very happily in league with our modern English poetic muse, whoever she is these days. Yes, if she wanted to, the author of Borrowed Black could absolutely write a perfect poetic sequence in praise of ice. But that’s not what she wanted to do. She wrote something more like a story-saga in praise of ice, something with room for dashes of humour and dreams of silver (whoops, there I slipped into Borrowed Black territory again).
I want to take a little aside here to apologize to Ellen Bryan Obed if I’m being too much of a poetry geek, and veering too far off from what your actual intentions were. This is just how it reads to me, and I tend to be immersed up to my ears in poetry most days of the week. Mea culpa.
This story-saga of the winter months to me recalls older poetry, accentual verse. Yes, it’s written in prose, I acknowledge that, and that’s why you don’t have the syllabic line structure of formal modern English poetry (iambic pentameter and so on), but you definitely do have accented words: “ice,” “pails,” “barn,” “skim,” “broke.” And just read aloud, again, these lines:
We sped to silver speeds at which lungs and legs, clouds and sun, wind and cold, raced together. Our blades spit silver. Our lungs breathed out silver. Our minds burst with silver while the winter sun danced silver down our bending backs.
But I’ve failed if I don’t give some sense of what this story-saga is about: what are the twelve kinds of ice? Well, Ellen Bryan Obed takes us on a winter stroll through the cold months of the year. These are marked for her not by months, but by how the weather spoke to them. I remember thinking of October as the First Cold Month: the question was whether it would be too cold for Hallowe’en costumes without coats on.
For our young narrator, winter speaks through ice. You’ve met the First Ice. The Second Ice can be picked out of the pails like panes of glass and shattered on the frozen ground. The Third Ice stays firm. But after these ices of anticipation come the ices that the children (and, we soon learn, not just the children) truly waited for: the various ices you could skate on. There’s Field Ice, and Stream Ice: both ices for skating on various places around home. There’s Black Ice on the Great Pond, too. But most of all for the children there’s the ice in their own garden, Garden Ice, their very own ice rink in their very own yard, maintained by the whole family, especially the father. Ice they share with the neighbourhood, ice that endures through the winter and ultimately gave rise to the Rules of the Rink and, after the Perfect Ice came, the Skating Party.
These are just some of the ices which Ellen Bryan Obed reminisces about in this slim volume. And I find myself reminiscing about my own ice: Marsh Ice. When there was a January thaw and then a hard freeze, then it was safe enough to trek out into the backyard and clumsily put on our skates (we weren’t such expert skaters as the skaters of Bryan Gardens in the book!), and go skating on our own patch of marsh. We’d carefully weave in and out of the frozen bulrushes, not going too far out in case the ice did break, and would eventually run back inside for hot chocolate, thrilled at getting the better of the ice rink in town: we’d gone skating in our own yard, wow!
If you have any memories of your own types of winter ice, then expect them to be awakened by this read. The lilting almost-certainly-prose-really will wheedle open your oldest memories of ice and winter and skating, and you will fall in love with winter again as you close your eyes and dream of ice. Then make some hot chocolate. Do you have dreams of winter and ice? Feel free to leave them in the comments!
As I said at the top of the post, this beautiful book was a gift, and I want to pass on the kindness. If you want a copy, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and the first to write will win the giveaway. First come, first served, for readers in the USA and Canada. It’s a beautiful book, so I promise you, you do want this book.