Jill Osier’s ‘Should Our Undoing Come Down Upon Us White’

by Courtney Hartnett

Jill Osier’s Should Our Undoing Come Down Upon Us White is the kind of chapbook that instantly drops the reader into a separate world—in this case, a cold, meditative world cloaked in the softness of snow and the vague promise of thaw. With a few deft brushstrokes of language, Osier creates a picture of winter with rich emotional landscapes wrapped around the more tangible physical landscapes.

The opening poem, “The Sea of Too Far is Unmapped,” is stark and has the feel of a folktale. The speaker opens the poem with a sense of rugged solitude that permeates the rest of the book:

Maybe this is the night.

The night that can finally take the shape, though not the sound, maybe never the sound, of the story of a man who loses his knife while cleaning the goose he shot from a canoe he’s been paddling for weeks, alone, far from anyone.

The chapbook’s poems retain the feel of that cold solitude, the type that only can take place against the insulating backdrop of snow. In “The Snow Is Almost Again Mended,” Osier utilizes an uncharacteristic amount of white space between lines. The poem is arranged on the page so that the words seem to be adrift in white space—a visual and sonic parallel to the experience of being in snow. The speaker and the poem’s “you” are skiing—they’re points of motion in the snow, the forms of letters on the page. Anyone who has been surrounded by snow knows the peculiar insulating effect it has—sound seems to be absorbed into snowdrift. The silence of the poem’s “you” mirrors the snow’s silence: “you ski ahead. Oh, how you fit/the wintry scene,/cutting, quiet.”

Nature figures prominently throughout the book, but it’s often portrayed in fresh, arresting ways. One example is in “This Close,” a poem that captures sunset as “a day that is falling/back into its simplest shapes”:

The trees along the rivers are slipping
back into their lavender cloaks
with that calm of someone in a doorway
who’s already gone.

The pattern of interweaving humans and the natural world—whether it be through simile and metaphor, juxtaposition, or something else—is a central feature of Should Our Undoing Come Down Upon Us White. However, Osier’s work resists classification as pure “nature poetry.” This resistance is never more clear than at the end of “Spring Has Such Tiny Wrists,” which captures deer and the coming spring for thirteen lines and then, in a deft simile, switches to a girl planning an escape from a correctional.

The girl in the correctional is one of only a few people (aside from the speaker and the “you” present throughout the book) to make an appearance. In an illustration of Osier’s mastery of the pithy short poem, “Left to Itself the Heart Could Almost Melt, Mend” imbues the sight of an Amish girl in the snow with a moving subtext:

She is maybe new to winter
this far north and wants to know
its depth. Its give. Oh,
be careful. It already has you
by the night of your dress,
violet-black with white-dotted print.

The idea of the girl experiencing snow for the first time is reminiscent of Rumspringa, when Amish teenagers are given leave to explore the world outside of traditional Amish life and may choose to leave it if they wish. There’s a darker undercurrent here—the speaker suggests that the girl has been caught by something forceful and insidious, something that has her “by the night of [her] dress.” One reading might suggest that the girl is blending into the cold north—even the dress pattern is similar to that of a night sky with snow.

Interactions (or near interactions) like the one with the Amish girl punctuate the book in between poems of reverie and solitary meditation. “Someday My Stomach Will Be a Museum” captures a friendly visit from a neighborhood child, Ki, who eats a tortilla half. This connection, too, has some darkness to it—Ki says that “she runs/from a particular boy who is funny because/he hurts her.” When the child leaves, the speaker “watch[es] the dark take her.” This suggests a sense of futility, an inability to protect the child. When the narrative returns to the speaker and the poem’s “you,” it still connects back to the child’s visit—like the tortilla, the shoulders of the “you” are “soft bitable rounds.”

Winter imagery is a commitment on Osier’s part—it persists even in abstraction, ligating the speaker’s thoughts to the physical reality of her existence. In the dreamlike poem “Flame,” the vivid image of a heart is juxtaposed with the continuing sense of rugged winter:

Your heart, red wax,

slipped soft from its nail. I shaped it back, and the two of us lay waiting
in a cabin’s draft.

Thus, the sense of cold and winter is important to the book’s internal and external landscapes. The glimmers of self and season throughout make the book at once cohesive and multifaceted. “Last Dream of Flowers” ends with the speaker being told she must keep her newly-purchased bouquet of flowers cold. The fact that the speaker is in a cold climate suggests that the flowers are a symbol for the self, and the following poem, “Snow Becoming Light By Morning,” captures a difference between the speaker and the “you.” The speaker notes that “I am filled with snow. There’s nothing to do now/but wait.” Snow becomes a kind of metaphor for an incompleteness, a waiting for something.

The book’s final poem takes the reader to the beginning of the long-awaited thaw, both personally and geographically. Melting is present throughout—the poem opens with “Something left this morning after making a small river of me.” A “red bird,” also present and totem-like in the first poem, is mentioned and watched for. The bird isn’t seen, but chickadees are “helmeted and ready,” suggesting that the thaw brings with it a kind of chaos, a freeing of things locked in ice, a freeing of self.