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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The free-verse poem “Ice” is a monologue that dramatically narrates the speaker’s experiences as a cast-off teenager, her killing of her child and her man, and the warm memory she has for this man as she comes to reconcile her adolescent confusion. The poem consists of four stanzas, the first three having thirteen lines each and the last, twelve. The title word proceeds into the first line, with the thought that will compare the conditions on a river as a harsh winter ends with the chilly and irresolute emotions she felt toward her new family.

The speaker is a young woman. Throughout the poem she addresses her lover, beside whose grave she stands. She had strangled their first child, which the reader discovers only after being confronted with the oddly juxtaposed images of the sunrise surrounding her man and the baby’s skull in the box. Despite having violently attacked and killed him, she finds that her affection for him strengthens. In this monologue, Ai creates an effect similar to that achieved by Robert Browning in “My Last Duchess,” except that Ai dramatically relates the specific details of the speaker’s actions.

The opening stanza establishes the fact that, as an adolescent Choctaw, she is far from home, living in Minnesota. The Choctaws were called one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeastern United States; however, taking up European ways did not exempt them from being forcibly removed from their original homelands in northern Alabama and Mississippi and relocated to the Indian Territory, which later became the state of Oklahoma, in the 1830’s. The speaker resents her father for considering her already “a burden” at twelve, and her feelings of resentment at his giving her away during her menses are powerful.

At fourteen, the speaker, literally a child-woman, is ill-disposed to the roles of mate and mother (nowhere in the poem is marriage explicitly stated or implied). She describes her man’s warmth and disposition as he enters their abode, hugged by the sun, in stanza 2. The rocking horse he made for her is subtly placed in that stanza; it introduces details such as “the ebony box/ with the baby’s skull inside,” the husband combing his hair with a casual gesture, and the dramatic action in stanza 3 that may shock the reader. She dismounts from the rocking horse, which is essentially a toy, to attack, maim, and slay him.

Reopening her eyes in the last stanza, she recalls how “I wanted you then and now/ and I never let you know.” Together—he in death, and she vibrant and filled with mixed emotions about their past—they will “slide forward” into an eventual and eternal realm of the spirit.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

When using first-person points of view, poets often adopt a persona or mask in order to create a character that seems mentally and physically active and real. Creating this persona does not mean that the poet intends to veil autobiographical details. The figurative devices in “Ice” may be drawn from oral history, readings, historical documents, and the like. Ai may feel close to the images she creates, and her Native American, Asian American, and mixed black and white ancestry makes her imagery, details, and emotions more profound.

Images of remembrance, retribution, distrust of males, and killing abound in “Ice.” The ice on the river breaks into “obelisks,” which as tapered monolithic structures bear a phallic significance. Ice metaphorically reflects the speaker’s attitude toward her man, her distrust of him, just as its breakage results from the onset of warm conditions.

Juxtaposed to the poem’s bittersweet memory and dramatic violence are images of soft materials such as “that shawl of cotton wool,” the “white smock,” the piece of velvet, and “the pony-skin rug,” all of which convey nonthreatening surroundings. Ai balances this set of images, however, by introducing early in the poem the material central to the speaker’s rage—“the roll of green gingham”...

(The entire section is 1,203 words.)