Christina Olson

Poverty Year

But what to do with these men’s overcoats, thick socks, dead ancestors? I’ve skidded my way across the brim of America. My own tour of the Great Lakes: New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. This year, I burrow in magnolia wool. I slam the door and stomp my feet. Winter knows an empty threat when it hears it, pours another.

Norway narrows to four miles at its thinnest, its spine ice. Somewhere, a glacier groans in us. Somewhere on the Upper Peninsula stands an old house. My great-grandparents were born across an ocean, moved to Michigan, left, moved back. Their son chose the only college north. He took all his belongings to Tech, filled a single drawer.

1915: Four months of close quarters. The men of Shackleton’s failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition party circulate a single copy of one novel for fifteen weeks.

In week sixteen, new marginalia appears: Hotheads—Not unlike some members of this Expedition! Time and wind whittle men into slender icicles.

You had Hodgkin’s disease when you were young. Your sister moved home. You went to Disney with other sick boys. You all rode Space Mountain, and one by one everyone died—except for you. Your chemo burned and worked. You graduated school, took up smoking. I met you in winter, over fire.

Icy crunch of pomegranate, gallons of wine, too-expensive cheese. Smokers and the homeless have no business up here. Send them south with the geese.

I fell out of love with you, winter. I pulled my coat tight and bought a dog. The smoker worked days; I worked nights. Heat cost too much. We Saran Wrapped the windows. I took hot baths, moved from bed to electric blanket to third shift.

1816 was the year without a summer. Potatoes and water buffalo died. All this because months earlier, a volcano across the world had erupted.

What was our catastrophe? We peer back along the isthmus that brought us here. Our footsteps curve into white. We can’t tell where we’ve been. I watch the polar divers in the Genesee River, in Lake Michigan.

There is ash in the air.

In Minneapolis, the young men sleepwalk from bars down to the river. The ghost of Jeff Buckley waves from the Wolf, shows their bodies to their winter beds. In the summers, they resurface, and their mothers recognize unlined faces.

Or is it snow.

What do any of us dream of? Deep banks. Quinzhee fever. Digging ourselves out. That the snowflakes on our eyelashes will not melt.

Christina Olson author photoChristina Olson is the author of a book of poems, Before I Came Home Naked. Recent writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Southern Review, River Styx, Nimrod, CutBank, and Salamander. She is the poetry editor of Midwestern Gothic, and lives both in Georgia and online at <>.