Susan Stewart

Yellow Stars and Ice by Susan Stewart

‘Yellow Stars and Ice’ captures the unattainable nature of memory, even when it feels tantalizingly close at hand.

In ‘Yellow Stars and Ice‘, Susan Stewart treads the line between memory and fantasy as the poem ponders questions of separation and reflection. Through a series of dreamlike images, Stewart captures a sense of impotent longing for both a person, a place, and above all, a moment in time to which the narrator cannot return.


Summary

Yellow Stars and Ice‘ examines the point where memory and imagination converge and become entangled with one another.

Written over three stanzas, the poem offers a series of images and similes to evoke the distance the narrator feels from a particular moment and person. These accumulations of these images, as well as their surreal quality, distorts the poem’s geography and sense of time as distances simultaneously appear both inconsequential and impassable. Ultimately, it becomes clear that this tension is intended to replicate the experience of memory, which is both immediately present in our minds but utterly unreachable in the physical sense.

Context

Born in 1952, Susan Stewart is a poet, translator, and literary critic who has published extensively since the late 1970s. ‘Yellow Stars and Ice’ is the title poem of her debut collection which was first published in 1981 by Princeton University Press. In 2005, Stewart was elected as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and her work is enormously respected by her fellow poets. She has claimed that ‘Yellow Stars and Ice‘ is rooted in the first inexhaustible idea of her writing career – the tension between memory and the imagination.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

I am as far as the deepest sky between clouds
and you are as far as the deepest root and wound,
and I am as far as a train at evening,
(…)
the birch trees. I am as far as the sleep of rivers
that stains the deepest sky between clouds,
you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory.

The poem begins with a series of similes that evoke distance and separation, though it is not clear from who or what the narrator feels they have been parted. The conflation of deep roots and wounds in the second line captures the poem’s attitude to this obsession with distance, as they feel the thing they long for is both essential, like a root, and painful, like a wound. The use of the direct address indicates that it is a person they feel cut off from, although their sense of dislocation feels insurmountable, as though that person may no longer be alive.

The poet uses a surreal simile that describes the unnamed addressee as being like an arrow that has sewn the wind to the light. This blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy as the image is incongruous and dreamlike. It also presents memory as both something that can be weaponized and also as a healing presence, as it is used as a needle with thread, similar to one that might be used to close a wound.

Stanza Two

You are as far as a red-marbled stream
where children cut their feet on the stones
and cry out. And I am as far as their happy
(…)
as far as a sailor can see at midnight
when he’s drunk and the moon is an empty cup,
and I am as far as invention and you are as far as memory.

The continued use of the direct address in this stanza creates an intimate tone that reflects the confessional nature of the poem itself. This suggests the addressee is likely a loved one that has possibly died; however, given the poem’s focus on the past, it could also be a younger version of the narrator that they cannot reach.

This stanza is preoccupied with stains and marks, such as the reference to bleaching in the fourth line and the titular reference to the yellow stars and ice. These images could represent the manner in which our memory of events colors the events themselves and that events can be altered through our evolving recollections of them. In the case of the yellow stars and ice, the poet appears to imply the memories have been spoiled due to the connotations of the color yellow, which is associated with decay. Furthermore, the whiteness of stars and ice is generally associated with purity and innocence, which indicates that these qualities have been lost.

Stanza Three

I am as far as the corners of a room where no one
has ever spoken, as far as the four lost corners
of the earth. And you are as far as the voices
(…)
and the sirens of wars no one living can remember,
as far as this room, where no words have been spoken,
you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory.

The poet distorts our normal perception of time and space through a series of juxtapositions. First, they juxtapose the relatively small space of a single room with the “four lost corners of the earth” in order to imply that the physical distance between two things is irrelevant so long as it is a divide the narrator cannot cross. Likewise, the poet contrasts the specific physical distance a horse can travel in “six years, two months and five days” with the more abstract space “between word and word” to imbue the poem with a hopeless quality, as the narrator becomes resigned to the fact they can never return to their past. This conclusion is relentlessly reinforced by the refrain in the poem’s final line, which reminds the reader that, while memories might feel close at hand, they are far away, and that distance is growing with every passing moment.

FAQs

What is the significance of the title, ‘Yellow Stars and Ice‘?

The title is significant as it foreshadows the manner in which events, which seem so clear and unspoiled when they are taking place, can be discolored by time and memory. The color yellow has negative connotations due to its association with decay and disease.

What is the structure of ‘Yellow Stars and Ice‘?

The poem is written in free verse over three stanzas. The final stanza is noticeably longer than the previous two, which possibly mirrors the increasing distance from the person or place that the narrator is longing for.

What is the tone of the poem?

The narrator appears resigned to the fact they cannot reach the person for whom they are longing, though the exact reason appears greater than just geographical distance. There is, however, some beauty in the manner in which this pain is expressed.

Why can’t the narrator reach the person they are separated from?

This is the poem’s central, elusive question which ultimately has no definitive answer. The distance between them clearly transcends mere physical space, so it may be the person has passed away, and the narrator is longing to be reunited with them when they were living. It could also be that the person is still alive but has changed significantly and that the narrator wishes to reach out and find the version of that person that they loved from the past.


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Readers who enjoyed ‘Yellow Stars and Ice‘ might want to explore similar poetry. For example:

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About
Joe has a degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York and a Masters in Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. He is an English tutor and counts W.B Yeats, Emily Brontë and Federico Garcia Lorca among his favourite poets.
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