Stay with Me

Stay with Me: A Review of David Keplinger’s Ice

By Lindsay Stewart






Among other reasons, I picked up David Keplinger’s newest collection, Ice, because I was once a seven-year-old aspiring archeologist, obsessed with Otzi the Iceman. Stay with me. Learning about the mummy, recently unearthed and in remarkable condition, was one of the first times I considered that people who lived thousands of years ago were not abstractions. I was intrigued, not by how Otzi was discovered, or what his body looked like now, but that he lived—and how. In Ice, David Keplinger gently reminds his audience that living in the present—yes, this present—can be a grounded, collective experience.

Keplinger’s eighth book begins with the title poem, in which the speaker draws connections between the head of an ancient wolf, preserved in snow, and the desire to have a child. “You wanted a child,” he writes, “I don’t know / where that question got buried in my body.” The poem carries ache; it begs the reader to share in the grief that the speaker cannot manage to hold alone. The speaker in “Ice” has discovered something in their research, something specific, and become unmoored. The poems in this collection beg: Stay with me. They wonder, Perhaps the loss can be lessened if we hold it together. In fact, Keplinger is a certified mindfulness teacher and is explicitly interested in “exploring how the written word can hold grief.”

In “Near Yakutia” and “Spartak the Lion Cub Lives Under the Permafrost,” among other poems, readers can see the preserved remains of animals not for what they are, but for what they were: breathing, conscious, cared for. Keplinger mourns them, but in a way that reanimates their real lives. Mourning is love’s afterlife, and this is a collection that embraces mourning. Keplinger accepts death as fact and begins there. But as much as he is tender and natural in the “death world,” he is also enamored with living. 

Some surprising moments in Ice that depart from the contemplative and confessional–what Keplinger does so effortlessly–seek something more playful, particularly the poems “Ice Moons” and “The Last Reader of the Poems.” The apocalyptic world in “The Last Reader of the Poems” is ending; everything that takes place is the last thing to ever be done. But despite the end of everything, Keplinger is not afraid to surprise the reader with moments of playfulness. “Ice Moons,” a series of prose stanzas about various real moons, stands out. These stanzas may begin in fact, but they play extensively with Greek myths. 

With “Ice Moons,” Keplinger suggests that the stories told about objects in the sky are often more relevant to our lives than the physical matter above us. His strongest stanza is “Puck,” in which he writes that this moon “moves with confidence and purpose. Same way that sleepwalkers can pass through darkened rooms, aware of all the furniture in front of them.” I’m unsure to what extent the facts in these poems are true, and I don’t care, because Keplinger creates his own compelling myths, just as much as he draws on old ones. 

Keplinger, who has taught at American University since 2007, is a poet who clearly revels in research. He excels at short, declarative lines, as in “Reading Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts.” “I too come here / respectfully,” Keplinger writes, “I bow halfway at thresholds. I know how to wait / at a completely empty window, holding out my hands.” Anyone who practices Buddhist meditation might recognize the movement of bowing at a threshold— both common and holy. 

Perhaps seeing ourselves in the distant past can make the present—however heavy—seem more bearable, and the future less daunting. In Ice, David Keplinger seems to be saying that relics of the past that are both common and holy, whether Otzi the Iceman or Spartak the Lion Cub, can remind us to collectively be. In this book, although the world may feel as if it is ending, time is not an enemy. We acknowledge it, and allow it to pass, as it always does. To read David Keplinger’s Ice, is indeed to look at yourself in a mirror, hold your gaze, and say aloud, Be with me. Stay with me.


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