Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2074
“New Rule” starts by setting the scene. It is: “A New Year’s white morning of hard new ice.” The fact that the ice is new means that it has probably just arrived, perhaps through an ice storm. Right away, the reader knows that the action of the poem is taking place in winter and probably in a northern climate. The fact that the poet defines the ice as “hard” probably has some significance, since this is a statement of the obvious. In poetry, every word counts, and to make a good poem the poet must ruthlessly trim any unnecessary words. It could be that the poet just wants to help the reader visualize the setting. However, at this point, the reader cannot tell for sure. As the poem progresses to the next line, the setting gets more specific. Now, with the discussion of “frozen branches,” it is clear that the poet is, in fact, witnessing the aftermath of an ice storm, which has coated a tree with ice. High up on this tree, the poet sees “a squirrel jump and skid.”
At this point, the squirrel is merely a woodland creature that has had the misfortune to be stuck on a frozen, slippery tree. However, with the third line, the poem becomes more fantastical, as the poet begins an imaginary conversation with the squirrel: “Is this scary? he seemed to say and glanced”— the line stops here, in mid-sentence, running over into the next stanza. The reader can only assume that the squirrel’s imaginary thoughts are in regards to his precarious situation in the tree. Since the poet is giving the squirrel an imaginary voice in the poem, she is personifying it, which may mean that she wishes to give the squirrel greater significance. Personification is a technique whereby poets give inanimate or non-human objects human qualities— in this case, the squirrel is given the ability to have a conversation.
The first line of stanza 2 continues the previous line: “down at me, clutching his branch as it bobbed.” When a line of verse runs over from one line to the next, either within or between stanzas, it is known as a run-on-line. Poets use this technique for many reasons. By running the text over into the next line, the poem moves faster, since punctuation marks at the end of the line—such as those found at the end of the first two lines of the first stanza—inevitably cause the reader to pause. At this early part of the poem, it does appear that Carson is using the run-on-lines to make the poem read faster. The poem moved slowly in the beginning, before she started talking to the squirrel. Now that the imaginary conversation has started, the poem is picking up speed.
Besides the increase in speed, Carson is also emphasizing the idea of instability. The squirrel is “clutching his branch,” which is bobbing in the wind. The slippery branch has become an unsafe place for the squirrel, which could fall if it is not careful. The next line hints at this possibility, saying that the branch is bobbing “in stiff recoil.” Recoiling is a defensive move, so the poet is saying that the branch views the squirrel’s presence on the branch as an attack and may buck him off. This depiction of the branch’s movement as a human-like reaction is another use of personification. The poet has the squirrel finish his imaginary thought train from the previous stanza, when the squirrel said “Is this scary?” Now, the squirrel says: “or is it just that everything sounds wrong today?” Once again, at this point, the reader does not know if the poet is referring to the sound of the ice-covered branches, or if there is something else that sounds wrong. In any case, the next line mentions “The branches”—this line follows the same pattern as before and runs over into the next stanza.
The first line of stanza 3 continues the previous line: “clinked.” This abrupt, one-word line finishes the poet’s description of the branches by using a technique known as onomatopoeia—the use of words whose sound expresses their meanings. In other words, when something “clinks,” like the icecovered branches in the poem, it literally makes a clinking sound. Of course, in the human world, glasses also “clink” when they are tapped together in a toast, as when two lovers toast each other with wine or champagne glasses. One could venture a guess at this point that the poem has something to do with romance, but there is not enough evidence yet to make a definite conclusion. In the next line, the poet notes that the squirrel “wiped his small cold lips with one hand.” Since the squirrel has just recently survived his fearful sliding ordeal without falling or getting bounced off the branch, he stops to wipe his lips. This is another sign of personification, because one usually discusses a squirrel as having a mouth, not lips, which are normally associated with humans. Even the gesture of wiping one’s lips has human connotations. When people have been through a frightful ordeal, they may wipe their lips as a nervous gesture.
However, going back to the idea of love, lips are also used in the human world to depict romance. Humans kiss on the lips and love is often represented visually by a set of lips pressed into a kiss print. At this point in the poem, the reader can point to an increasing number of clues that suggest the poet may be talking about romance, yet there is still not enough evidence to make a definite conclusion. Returning to the idea that the squirrel is afraid, the concept of fear is carried over to the next line. Here, the poet gives her first imaginary response to the squirrel: “Do you fear the same things as.” Like the end lines of the last two stanzas, this line runs over to the next stanza.
The first line of stanza 4 continues the previous line: “I fear? I countered, looking up.” The way that Carson chooses to break this sentence between the two stanzas seems to be deliberate. Although the entire sentence taken together forms a question to the squirrel about whether or not the animal is afraid of the same things as the poet, there seems to be a deeper meaning in this first line. Similar to the last stanza, where “clinked” was set off totally on its own to emphasize the sound of the word, this stanza uses a question mark to set off the first two words as its own question: “I fear?” The poet seems to be asking herself, not the squirrel, if she is still afraid of something. In response to this, the poet notes that the squirrel is on the move again, since the tree branch is moving: “His empire of branches slid against the air.” The use of the word “empire” places the squirrel in a position of power, since only those in power have empires. However, this empire, the domain of branches that the squirrel normally has no problem navigating, is unstable due to its slippery covering of ice. Even when the branch moves through the air, Carson says that it seems to slide, further underscoring the notion of instability.
At this point, the poet has given readers many references to cold, slippery, unstable objects, so the reader might suspect that these images are part of some deeper meaning in the poem. Since the poet is asking herself what she fears, it is logical to assume that she might now answer herself. In fact, this is exactly what she does in the next line: “The night of hooks?” Although she could be speaking literally, it is not likely, given the context of the poem so far. If the poet was contending with actual hooks at night, it would be more like a horror story. Instead, the poet is probably using the negative idea of a “night of hooks,” to express the painful loneliness she feels at night. This interpretation fits in with the rest of the poem, since all of the cold, hard, slippery imagery could suggest loneliness and isolation, which in turn fits the interpretation that this poem may have something to do with romance. Unlike the previous stanzas, this one does not end on a run-on-line, and for good reason. The poet wants to give this line more impact. As a result, she sets it off totally by itself, further underscoring the idea of isolation.
She also isolates the next line: “The man blade left open on the stair?” This line may be confusing to readers at first. Is Carson talking about an actual folding knife that was left open on the stairs? If so, why is she afraid of it? She lists it as one of the two things, other than the “night of hooks,” that she fears. Once again, since this poem does not belong to the horror genre, it is unlikely that the poet is afraid of being stabbed by a knife. Instead, the poet is probably talking about an electric razor, a type of circular “blade” that many men use for shaving. This interpretation makes sense when one looks at the remaining two lines of the stanza: “Not enough spin on it, said my true love / when he left in our fifth year.” An electric razor has spinning blades. Knowing this, one can envision the image that Carson is trying to create. The poet’s boyfriend or husband left her after five years. On his way out, he dropped his electric razor, which fell open on the stairs. The poet might have asked him if he needed it or not, prompting him to tell her that he does not, since the razor has lost most of its spinning power. In other words, it is dying, just as their relationship is dying. An unspecified amount of time later, the woman is afraid of this razor and everything it represents. By this time, the razor is most likely dead. However, the memory of it, and by extension the memory of its owner, still has the power to cut her. This is why the poet refers to the razor as a “man blade”—an odd designation for an electric razor.
At this point, readers can see without a doubt that the poet has been struggling with a bad breakup after a relationship that lasted five years, and this is why she has engaged in the imaginary conversation with the squirrel. All of the imagery of death and isolation fits the mood of the poet. She is attempting to bury her past once and for all and move on with her life. To this end, the poet now comes out of her imaginary conversation. The first two lines of this stanza read: “The squirrel bounced down a branch / and caught a peg of tears.” Dealing with one’s past is not easy, so, like the squirrel, the poet feels “bounced” around. The fact that the poet describes the squirrel’s branch as “a peg of tears” is also very telling. Visually, it is a powerful image, because when water droplets freeze on a branch, they can indeed make tear-shaped structures. However, this image is even more powerful because the poet is living vicariously through the tree; she is using the tree to help her shed her last emotional tears from her broken relationship. The last line states: “The way to hold on is”—and carries over into the final stanza in another run-on-line.
The three lines of the last stanza finish the sentence from the previous line: “afterwords / so / clear.” In other words, now that the poet has successfully gotten over her past, the key to surviving her future, the way to “hold on,” is clear to her. The fact that the poet is coming to these conclusions on New Year’s morning is very significant, since many people traditionally begin the new calendar year by making a New Year’s resolution, or rule, for themselves. For the poet, this “new rule,” as the title indicates, is to seek happiness again, perhaps in love. She is casting off the hard crust of her isolation, just as the ice-covered tree will cast off its layer of ice once the sun begins to melt it.