Poem of the Week | January 15, 2018
Jason Olsen: “Overheard—French Couple Discussing an Ice Sculpture”
This week, we are proud to offer a new poem by Jason Olsen. Olsen is originally from Las Vegas, Nevada, and currently lives in rural Utah with his wife and two young children. He teaches writing at Utah State University. His first book of poems, Parakeet, was published in June 2017 by BatCat Press. He was awarded first place in the 2016 Utah Original Writing Competition in the Full Length Collection of Poems category as selected by Lola Haskins. His poems have appeared in The Mid-American Review, Rattle, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Indiana Review among other places.
Overheard–French Couple Discussing an Ice Sculpture
I catch the word “house” but not the context,
whether it’s wouldn’t this look good in our house
or this reminds me of the coldness of our house.
The sculpture itself is reaching its final hours,
its shape evolving into the pan beneath it, the mauve carpet.
The ice still holds the shape of a fawn;
the man points at its head, glassy and still alert.
The woman nods—flowers climb the spiral staircase
that divides and defines this hotel lobby.
I knew a friend for two years before he told me
he once found a species of butterfly
nearly unknown in the state of Utah and reintroduced it,
allowing a population surge
that brought the number of that species into the hundreds,
securing years, maybe decades, of survival.
There are these things about ourselves we hold on to,
unable to share, clinging to in even
our most vulnerable moments. We’re not supposed
to understand. Maybe it’s modesty, embarrassment
over the fact that what we love and have accomplished
will overshadow our very capacity to relate to someone else.
Maybe this man, speaking French to a woman I assume
is his wife, is explaining how he once built a house of ice
and watched it, over weeks, drip into nothing.
He’s talking about the pain
of watching something you love die slowly
and the woman holds his hand and tells him quietly
that she somehow always knew.
There are butterflies in Utah that aren’t supposed to be there.
A dying fawn melts its way home.
This poem came out of circumstance and conversation when I was working in Las Vegas at a dairy, mostly cleaning ice cream freezers and delivering ice cream products to convenience stores and, occasionally, hotels and resorts. I would drive around with co-workers all around the region and one of those co-workers told me, after we had known each other for quite awhile, about his discovery and assistance of butterflies in Utah. It came late in knowing him (as opposed to being something he brought up in our first few conversations) and it surprised me, both for the act itself and the fact that he waited to tell me. So the poem began with wanting to express this story, but (like in my interaction with my friend) I didn’t want to start with it–I wanted to wait and put it a few stanzas in, after establishing the setting–to emphasize the waiting.
The French couple in the poem exists because of my own insecurities with other languages, specifically French. Despite taking several years in college and passing a competency exam in graduate school, I never came closer to mastering it. This combination of not fully being able to understand another person, and also not knowing someone else as well as might be expected, helped trigger the concept.
As for the ice sculpture? My years in Vegas and seeing unexpected things in hotel lobbies definitely inspired that. Though this isn’t a Vegas poem (and, in fact, only Utah is mentioned to establish region), I certainly see it as a a Vegas poem. And, in my limited history with ice sculptures, I’ve always found the melting of the statue to be a terribly sad circumstance. And they’re always melting.
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