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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

Poem of the Week: “The Ice Wager” by Harry Clifton

The new year is upon us and as the cold weather continues, Harry Clifton offers a hopeful message in “The Ice Wager.” Taken from his 2014 selected poems, The Holding Centre, the poem allows Clifton’s characteristically whimsical interrogation of the human condition to shine through. January is a time for fresh starts and clean slates, but it often leaves much to chance. Surrounded by the swirling snow and tobogganing children in the aftermath of a busy holiday season, Clifton asks if the ice beneath our feet, and our little world, will hold.

The Ice Wager 

Snowscape. Shod in tailor’s irons,
Red-hot, with my poundage of weights,
I test the ice of our latest year.
Half the world is out on skates

And the other half watches. Avercamp
Or Brueghel bring the wild duck
Out of the skies, and crowd the river
With yellow leggings, anoraks,

Tobogganing children, and those dogs
More loved around here than people
The blind or the lonely. Winter trees
Turn gelid in the freezing fog,

The roads are churned to slushy meal
By the horses. Zigzags, figures of eight
Complete the picture. But it is real,
Our wager, so place your bet

With the notary on the bank,
Impartial witness. Hollow rumblings
Out on the ice—the iron quoits,
The games in progress. Will it crumble, 

Our little world, or will it hold?
Upriver from the Netherlands’
Oceangoing space, a man skates in,
A traveller, his clasped hands

Behind his back, his earflaps
Dangling. Has it fallen through,
Our worldview? But he brings no news.
Our mulled wine, our potato schnapps

Are all that concern him. Hurdy-gurdies,
Monkey dances. The Good, the True
Are beyond him, where he is travelling to.
It is down, again, to me and you,

Tonight, when I come off the ice
Which, needless to say, has never cracked
In centuries of changing skies,
To carry out the mandatory acts,

Traditional, for the time of year
Banquets where the loser pays,
White tablecloths for the ice-floes
Junketing on, in hope and fear.

Harry Clifton, from The Holding Centre: Selected Poems, 1974–2004 (2014)


Categories: Harry Clifton, Poem of the WeekTags: , ,

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