What We’re Reading: “Meltwater” by Claire Wahmanholm
By Elyza Bruce, CAS ‘25 & Common Home Editor
Most mainstream conversations surrounding climate change are centered in the realms of science, technology, and policy-making– or rather, what is rational, concrete, and quantifiable. This is a failure of imagination; climate change is an emotional crisis as much as it is a practical one. Art, and in particular, poetry, can fill these crucial gaps in our understanding of the climate crisis. Meltwater (2023), Claire Wahmanholm’s fourth poetry collection from Milkweed Editions, offers readers the emotional vocabulary to process the grief, anxiety, and uncanniness of ecological disaster that few other mediums can capture. Using a variety of poetic forms, from erasure poems, to alphabet poems, and prose poems, Wahmanholm paints a rich emotional portrait of grief in the face of parenthood and the looming threat of climate change.
A recurring series of poems titled “Glacier” and “Meltwater” appear throughout the collection, both forms considering the future ramifications of melting glaciers. The “Glacier” poems contain bold blocks of texts solidly filling the page, visually resembling the ancient bodies of ice of the poems’ namesake. Each time this poem appears in the book, the speaker revisits the same narrative as they attend exhibits where real glaciers can be viewed as they melt; visitors can even pay extra to bottle some of the meltwater to bring home.
In contrast, the recurring poems titled “Meltwater” are erasures from the essay “How to Mourn a Glacier” by Lacy M. Johnson. They comprise mere spatterings of words sprinkled across the glaring white page, as if the poem itself is being melted and scattered away. While the “Glacier” poems are more grounded in narrative, the “Meltwater” poems read like ghostly prophecies of the fallout to come.
Many of the poems in Meltwater are from the perspective of parenthood: what it means to raise a child into a world threatened by climate disaster. Wahmanholm articulates the cognitive dissonance that occurs when the ardent desire for a child clashes with the threat of an increasingly hostile world: “Sorrow and desire mixed at my roots…I thought your arrival would knock all the sorrow from me instead of increasing its reach.” Wahmanhom also explored this theme in her 2018 poetry collection Wilder. In an interview with The Adroit Journal, Wahmanholm said, “No one thinks they’re bringing their children into a perfect world, but some worlds are objectively worse than others.”
In the first iteration of the “Glacier” poems, the speaker expresses horror upon seeing parents bringing their children to see a glacier exhibit: “Everyone knows that children smell fear, but they smell shame even better.” Wahmaholm intricately captures a devastating situation; how to explain to a child that their future is bleak due to mistakes made before they were even born.
The heart of meltwater lies in the tension between the joy of parenthood and the looming dread of ecological disaster that threatens a child’s future. This tension is poignantly portrayed in the four alphabet poems in the collection, such as “P,” which follows a speaker as she reads a picture book to a child.
The poem begins with innocent associations with the letter “P” one might use to teach a child the alphabet, such as “peek-a-boo and this little piggy.” The tone takes a sharp turn as her mind associates “P” with the dark realities of environmental disaster such as “Pipelines and petrochemical plants” and “plastic, more permanent than permafrost.”
Another common thread in the collection is bearing witness to extinction. “O,” another alphabet poem in the collection and a third-place winner of the Treehouse Climate Action Poem Prize, likewise uses rhythm and alliteration to evoke a children’s alphabet book to reckon with the startling loss of biodiversity.
In “O,” the speaker lists a myriad species to reflect the dazzling biodiversity of the earth “O for the osprey’s ostentation, the owl and its collection of ossicles,” then juxtaposes them against the looming threat of their extinction, “O for the rising ozone, the dropping oxygen, for algae overblooming like an omen or an oracle.”
Wahmanholm dwells in the gray area that simultaneously celebrates the abundance of life on earth and mourns its subsequent vanishing due to ecological disaster. Wahmanholm said of the poem: “I kept thinking about alphabet books, especially those featuring animals. They say to children: look, the world is a vast kaleidoscope; look, its creatures are miraculous. But what if we were honest? If we said that koalas will vanish, and zebras, and orangutans, and that we—the authors of these books—are ensuring their vanishing?”
Beyond powerpoint slides of abstracted carbon emissions statistics and international climate accords loaded with bureaucratic jargon, poems like those in Meltwater remind readers that the melting of glaciers is not merely a logistical issue to be solved by policymakers, nor can the extinction of countless species be reduced to data points on a graph; they are pressure points of grief that are to be felt and felt deeply.