Updated date:

Mary Oliver's "Ice"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Mary Oliver

Introduction and Text of "Ice"

Mary Oliver's "Ice" is composed of 21 unrimed couplets. Many of the couplets are split in a manner that contributes to the poem's overall sense of disorientation. The subject of the poem, the speaker's father, is likely suffering a mild form of dementia as he faces his own mortality. The disorientation of the father is captured by the speaker/daughter as she communicates this sorrowful, but heartfelt tale.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Ice

My father spent his last winter
Making ice-grips for shoes

Out of strips of inner tube and scrap metal.
(A device which slips over the instep

And holds under the shoe
A section of roughened metal, it allows you to walk

Without fear of falling
Anywhere on the ice or snow.) My father

should not have been doing
All that close work

In the drafty workshop, but as though
he sensed travel at the edge of his mind,

He would not be stopped. My mother
Wore them, and my aunt, and my cousins.

He wrapped and mailed
A dozen pairs to me, in the easy snows

Of Massachusetts, and a dozen
To my sister, in California.

Later we learned how he'd given them away
To the neighbors, an old man

Appearing with cold blue cheeks at every door.
No one refused him,

For plainly the giving was an asking,
A petition to be welcomed and useful-

Or maybe, who knows, the seed of a desire
Not to be sent alone out over the black ice.

Now the house seemed neater: books,
Half-read, set back on the shelves;

Unfinished projects put away.
This spring

Mother writes to me: I am cleaning the workshop
And I have found

So many pairs of the ice-grips,
Cartons and suitcases stuffed full,

More than we can ever use.
What shall I do? And I see myself

Alone in that house with nothing
But darkly gleaming cliffs of ice, the sense

Of distant explosions,
Blindness as I look for my coat-

And I write back: Mother, please
Save everything.

Commentary

The speaker in this poem is dramatizing an account of her father's obsession with making "ice-grips" as he becomes more and more aware of his mortality, likely suffering from dementia.

First Movement: Working Tirelessly

My father spent his last winter
Making ice-grips for shoes

Out of strips of inner tube and scrap metal.
(A device which slips over the instep

And holds under the shoe
A section of roughened metal, it allows you to walk

Without fear of falling
Anywhere on the ice or snow.) My father

should not have been doing
All that close work

In the drafty workshop, but as though
he sensed travel at the edge of his mind,

The speaker states that during the last winter of her father's life, he worked tirelessly in his drafty workshop making ice-grips for shoes. The speaker then explains that the ice-grips are made of strips of inner tube and scrap metal. Parenthetically, she explains how the device is worn over the shoe to keep one from slipping on ice.

The speaker reveals that her father's health should have precluded, "All that close work / In the drafty workshop." But the speaker surmises that he felt the end of his life looming: "He sensed travel at the edge of his mind."

Second Movement: Taunted by Death

He would not be stopped. My mother
Wore them, and my aunt, and my cousins.

He wrapped and mailed
A dozen pairs to me, in the easy snows

Of Massachusetts, and a dozen
To my sister, in California.

With the end of his life ever taunting him, the father could not stop to wait for death, for he felt the need to keep moving and creating. The speaker reveals that her mother, aunt, and cousins all wore the devices. Implying that the father's preoccupation with making the ice-grips was a bit excessive, the speaker states that he sent them to her in Massachusetts and to her sister in California, where such equipment would not be needed.

Third Movement: A Gift of Grips

Later we learned how he'd given them away
To the neighbors, an old man

Appearing with cold blue cheeks at every door.
No one refused him,

For plainly the giving was an asking,
A petition to be welcomed and useful-

Or maybe, who knows, the seed of a desire
Not to be sent alone out over the black ice.

The speaker claims that her father also gave them to neighbors. She envisions him appearing with "cold blue cheeks at every door." And every neighbor accepted the gift. She then speculates that in giving away the devices, her father was asking for approval to show that he was still useful.

But the speaker also speculates that he was giving the ice-grips so that others who might venture out on an icy day would be able to accompany him. He was not content to remain house-bound when ice covered the ground, and he did not want others to suffer from that inconvenience.

Fourth Movement: A Neater House

Now the house seemed neater: books,
Half-read, set back on the shelves;

Unfinished projects put away.

The ominous "now" at the beginning of the fourth movement signals that the father has passed, and the result of that passing is a neater house. His half-read books now stand back on the shelves, and his unfinished projects are all put away.

Fifth Movement: A Surprise

This spring

Mother writes to me: I am cleaning the workshop
And I have found

So many pairs of the ice-grips,
Cartons and suitcases stuffed full,

More than we can ever use.
What shall I do? And I see myself

Alone in that house with nothing
But darkly gleaming cliffs of ice, the sense

Of distant explosions,
Blindness as I look for my coat-

And I write back: Mother, please
Save everything.

In the final movement, the speaker's mother reveals in a letter that the ice-grip creation was even more pronounced than they had realized. In clearing out the father's workshop, the mother has run across so many pairs of the ice-grips. They were stuffed in cartons and suitcases, so many more than they could ever use. The mother asks the speaker/daughter, "What shall I do?" In musing for an answer to the mother, the daughter visualizes herself in her parents' home—no doubt sometime after the mother's passing: "Alone in that house with nothing / But darkly gleaming cliffs of ice."

The speaker thinks she hears or perhaps feels distant explosions, as she is "blindly look[ing] for [her] coat." Thus, she writes to her mother, "Mother, please / Save everything." When the time comes, the speaker wants to be able to be in that house surrounded by things that surrounded her parents, not an empty, cold house filled with nothing but ice.

Mary Oliver reading "Wild Geese"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes