Therése Halscheid’s Frozen Latitudes takes readers into the deep cold of a father’s thirty years of aphasia and dementia after open-heart surgery went badly wrong and also into the counterpoint to this narrative, his daughter’s sojourns in Alaska.  

These powerful, deeply felt poems tell the story of a father who can’t speak and a daughter who at fourteen starves herself because as she says, “I am / that full of my father.” On the way to school each day she throws away the sandwich her mother makes for her. After school, the neighborhood watches as she and her father shuffle past and she grows thinner, becoming “this leafless body.” In “My Father’s Cereal,” a painful account of both father and daughter being unable to eat, she says, “nothing can save us.”

The necessary complements to this narrative are the beautiful poems based on Halscheid’s time among the peoples of Alaska. While her father was trapped in his dementia, Halscheid became a nomad, living among an Inupiaq Eskimo tribe and completing a poet’s residency in Homer, Alaska. Among the tales she recounts are stories of a man nearly killed in a dog-sled race, a Caucasian woman’s learning to make Eskimo clothes after she marries a native man, and a fatal snow-mobile accident, the news of which reaches the father of the dead man through a white owl that rises “out of nowhere.”

One of the great pleasures of the book is the way the two narrative strands are braided together. Each poem casts light forward and backward to the poems that surround it. Without the movement between sacred tribal stories from Alaska and the poet’s father’s dementia, his story might feel too painful to bear. And without the father poems, the necessity and haunting truths of the Alaska poems might be less apparent. 

Halscheid’s father and mother both had premonitions of calamity before her father’s disastrous surgery as did Halscheid herself: “There was the moon and its voice. / The star, the dread of its speech.” Throughout the book the poet examines omens, reading the lines in her mother’s palm as “long roads of endurance” and understanding the death of a whale as a willing sacrifice when it “danced before the old boat” and “arrows pierced the long holy length” of its body. In “Reading the Thoughts of Clouds,” she looks for a message “against the blue notion of sky.” As she begins to understand the clouds more fully, she realizes that

if we just stay long enough we’ll know
what they have given the sky,
they have given ourselves.

Because her father cannot speak, others speak for him and to him in poems scattered throughout the book. His damaged heart says, “Charles, too many years / you have continued / as I do.” The wind is given a voice, and wooden rosary beads have their say as do the father’s hand and the sock placed on it to stop him from repeatedly making his forehead bleed. In “Hometown” the family’s house seems to will the fall resulting in a broken hip that requires him to leave home forever. Paradoxically, in “Wordless,” which is about his move into the Veterans Memorial Home, he says, “I say nothing about it.”

“It is not ever over,” a wheelchair says in “Geriatric Chair,” but finally, it is over. In “Making a Path Called Charles” and “Aerial View” the poet’s father speaks though his life has ended. He describes himself as “easing / into a clarity / I had not known / in thirty years.” 

“Admit my life destroyed yours,” he says to his daughter.

My grown little girl,
go where the wind talks
as it covers you saying

what I only wanted
to be
your good father.

These poems are harrowing, yet Halscheid’s questing spirit, courage, and generosity lead to forgiveness. In “Unsoundness of Mind” the rooms of her family’s house take her in “through something loathsome,” yet with her father she has “not a thing to do but pardon / . . . making enough allowances / as to go on.”

Among the fruits of her suffering and nomadic life are spiritual insights. Like the lotus in “Enlightenment,” the poet had her “beginnings in dark places / at the very bottom of things”:

Think of the stem
when its murky secret becomes its body’s truth,
think of the bud needing air
to open, needing to struggle without saying
and this is considered pure, this

is the white blossom
becoming light itself, on the surface of water.

It is heartening to come upon stunning love poems, “The Open Book” and “The Asking,” a beautiful invitation to love. Amid the despair, affection and desire can still blossom.

Readers might want to read this book twice, once quickly for the gripping stories and the pleasures of leaping from one world to another and a second time to appreciate the craft and mastery of the poems and to enjoy the vivid language. The images in Frozen Latitudes, such as “the knowing sea of your hand” and the “look / of bare sorrow,” are apt and memorable, and the varied poetic forms in the book match the rich range of emotion and experience the poetry conveys. “Visiting Dementia,” for example, is written in the open, broken lines its subject demands.

The book begins and ends with versions of the same open-form poem, “When Just Enough Words Have Gathered at Windows.” Ominously, the version that ends the book suggests that another narrative has not yet been told, that of Halscheid’s mother’s developing dementia.

These are mature poems, and this is the best of Halscheid’s books to date. In it the “self-starved child” travels great distances through time and space to learn difficult, necessary, and compelling truths.