Poem of the Week | January 24, 2022
“Jølster” by Michael Lee
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Jølster” by Michael Lee!
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, youth worker and organizer. He has received grants and scholarships from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Winner of the Scotti Merrill Award for poetry from the Key West Literary Seminar, his poetry has appeared in Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, Poetry Northwest, Copper Nickel, and Best New Poets 2018 among others. Michael is the author of The Only Worlds We Know (Button Poetry, 2019) and is currently an MFA candidate in English Literature and Creative Writing at Cornell University.
It is because of the glacier’s long retreat
the water of the lake is lit green.
When you were born it touched the valley,
and the cows could graze their way to its edge
and lick the frozen hem of the mountain
like an ancient salt block. The water
is so clean you can walk to the stone
shore and carry a pailful back to the cottage
to boil for coffee. In the early hours
of summer—when not even the fishermen
have skimmed the dark to check their nets,
when not even the cows have risen and the brome
has not yet been shorn for the baler’s spindling—
you slip naked into the wild green water
so cold the heart seizes for a moment.
You know of a man who, as a boy, leapt
into water this cold on a hot summer day:
his heart stopped, shocked by the revelation. He was dead
for minutes before being revived, jolted back
to the world, he was a boy still and would stay
a boy forever. You think of him, and how
he did not speak again, but looked out onto the world—
with eyes the color of this water, retreating
further and further each year into the skull
until hardly peering out—from behind
each orbitals’ ridge. You float out now
until your feet cannot feel the stones beneath you,
and your arms grow heavy with cold. It would be easy
to let the gentle tide take you, preserve you here
in your youth: a long gone thing remaining in Baltic amber.
It is the cold that alerts the body to its place
in the world and the world’s slow ascent out onto the ridgeline
and then the anonymous horizon beyond it.
Malachite, the color of the past undone.
Azurite, the color of the thin morning sky
when looked upon through the cold green water
as you lay weightless beneath its surface.
It is the color of your lips when you pull yourself
back onto the rocks—awakened and made pure by cold,
by the nearness of your own body—the water
still once more and looking up into the opening sky,
an eye into an eye. A single fisherman
troubles the surface, shaking the first of his nets
as if trying to wake the lake, stir the lost
world left there in the skim of its iris.
Every few years, I drive with friends from Oslo to their family cottage in Jølster. The first time I had gone, around a decade ago now, the glacier at the top of the ridgeline was pointed out to me. The next time I went, it was pointed out that what we had seen of the glacier two years prior was gone. The glacier has been disappearing for millions of years and also, seemingly, has disappeared overnight. I wrote this poem both as an ode, in a way, to this glacier, but also to the people of Jølster and the ways of life and orientations to the world which arise from relationship with and to the glacier. I sought to both celebrate and mourn the slow deletion of the glacier, of the life and lives connected to it (and by extension glaciers around the world) while also holding up the ways in which that which has gone is carried on through the body, through public and familial memory, and the mundane or routinized acts which cannot be separated from the past.
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