Poetry

Naomi Shihab Nye: “Snow”

 

Snow

Once with my scarf knotted over my mouth
I lumbered into a storm of snow up the long hill
and did not know where I was going except to the top of it.
In those days we went out like that.
Even children went out like that.
Someone was crying hard at home again,
raging blizzard of sobs.

I dragged the sled by its rope,
which we normally did not do
when snow was coming down so hard,
pulling my brother whom I called by our secret name
as if we could be other people under the skin.
The snow bit into my face, prickling the rim
of the head where the hair starts coming out.
And it was a big one. It would come down and down
for days. People would dig their cars out like potatoes.

How are you doing back there? I shouted,
and he said Fine, I’m doing fine,
in the sunniest voice he could muster
and I think I should love him more today
for having used it.

At the top we turned and he slid down,
steering himself with the rope gripped in
his mittened hands. I stumbled behind
sinking deeply, shouting Ho! Look at him go!
as if we were having a good time.
Alone on the hill. That was the deepest
I ever went into the snow. Now I think of it
when I stare at paper or into silences
between human beings. The drifting
accumulation. A father goes months
without speaking to his son.

How there can be a place
so cold any movement saves you.

Ho! You bang your hands together,
stomp your feet. The father could die!
The son! Before the weather changes.

 

“Snow” from Fuel by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright © 1998 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of BOA Editions Ltd.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye is the author and/or editor of more than thirty volumes, including five collections of poetry from BOA Editions: Red Suitcase (1994), Fuel (1998), You & Yours (2005), Transfer (2011), and The Tiny Journalist (2019). Her new book is Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems (Greenwillow 2020). Nye has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow. Her many awards include a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award from BOA, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Patterson Poetry Prize, four Pushcart Prizes, the Robert Creeley Prize, the Betty Prize from Poets House for her service to poetry, and the Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Texas Institute of Letters. She served on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets from 2010 to 2015, and in May 2019, she was named the 2019–2021 Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. For more information, visit barclayagency.com/nye. [Source here]

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Three years ago, this column featured a wonderful poem by Naomi Shahib Nye, “Burning the Old Year,” and today we are happy to be ringing in the new year again with this luminous poet. “Snow” consists of 37 lines of unmetered and unrhymed free verse and is narrative in mode, recounting the speaker’s memory of sledding in a blizzard with her younger brother when they were young. What distinguishes this telling from prose is that in it, language is foregrounded by the use of literary devices (simile, metaphor, image, personification, objective correlative and more) that enrich and enhance the storytelling into a compressed, vividly rendered experience a reader can share. “Snow” may take readers back, as it did me, to their own childhood memories of sledding. It also carries a deeper meaning that relates elements of the winter landscape to the speaker’s family and home life and to human relationships in a broader sense.

The poem opens in escape, the speaker and her younger brother leaving a house that is disturbed by tragedy or conflict: “Someone was crying hard at home again, / raging blizzard of sobs.” The word “again” signals that the reason for the crying is recurrent, some kind of family dysfunction or continuing grief. The language in this stanza is concrete and visceral, beginning with an image of the speaker forcibly gagged or muted (“my scarf knotted over my mouth”) and shackled (suggested in the verb “lumbered”) by the snow. Note how these figures work on both the level of literal image and of metaphor. The image is sensory and visceral; we feel it in our bodies—the cold, the claustrophobic scarf, the obstructionist snow. At the same time, we are inescapably led to thinking about other, more abstract ways of being muted and shackled. And, because the poem has taught us to read outer for signs of inner weather, we wonder if the storm is a metaphor for the family conflict that drives the children outside.

“Blizzard of sobs” uses the outer landscape to evoke the speaker’s inner landscape in a literary device called the ‘objective correlative.’ Coined by T. S. Eliot, the term describes the use of landscape or nature as a repository for and means of accessing and communicating human emotion. It’s one way to avoid melodrama and sentimentality, and when done well, can amplify and deepen expression. During the writing process, this device also gives writers a way to distance themselves and gain perspective on painful subjects, and in this way liberates expression of feeling. For readers, the adjectives and images used to describe nature can open windows into the speaker’s inner state. In this poem, for example, “blizzard” communicates an overwhelming, powerful, and almost extra-human expression of pain. The conceit of equating outer landscape with what is going on inside the room (and in the psyche of the speaker) is extended throughout the poem, finding its fullest expression in the last few lines.

In the first stanza, the speaker has no destination in mind beyond getting “to the top” of the hill. “In those days we went out like that,” she says, and then, “Even children went out like that.” The last statement is puzzling—don’t children always want to go out to play in the snow? By this line, we are informed that when the speaker and her brother have left the house in this and other instances, it’s not for play; apparently, both adults and children living in this house periodically feel the need to flee it. Moreover, the flight does not seem to offer relief; it takes place in a labored, painful way, with no destination in mind or other motivation beyond the need to get out and away from the source of unease or pain.

Stanza two goes more deeply into the scene, making sure we notice that these are very extreme weather conditions for children to be outside in. We feel the speaker’s tender solicitude for her younger brother in the acts of pulling him on the sled and calling him by “our secret name.” Somatic, sometimes personified details trigger the senses, as in sleet that “bit into my face” and an exquisitely precise description of snow “prickling the rim / of the head where the hair starts coming out.” These details, so accurate and vividly drawn, carry me back to my childhood winters in western Pennsylvania, sledding with my twin brother in just such a scene. The stanza closes with another reference to the magnitude of this particular storm, a “big one” lasting “days” and burying everything so that afterward people “would dig their cars out like potatoes.” That’s another wonderful sensory image, making an order-of-magnitude shift that lets us see, in panorama, a multitude of cars buried in snow.

Stanza three offers a snippet of conversation, unremarkable in content but notable for its tone of forced jollity. When the speaker recalls her brother answering “in the sunniest voice he could muster,” we acutely feel the pain of the children trying hard to act “as if we were having a good time.” The adult speaker’s observation that  “I think I should love him more today / for having used” that sunny tone, makes us ache for the little boy and for his sister. We also ache for the adult speaker, who seems to feel guilt or regret for not loving her brother enough “today.” Maybe the years have not been kind to their relationship, or there has been an estrangement.

In the middle of the poem, right where Freytag’s narrative pyramid would predict it, comes the climax of the poem’s action: the brother and sister reach the top of the hill, and the boy is released into the gravitational pull of the long slide down. The speaker, protective as always, stumbles down after him as they both strain to act like kids having fun. That they are not having fun, but are bravely trying to, is a painful reckoning for the reader.

Meanwhile, the sister, momentarily immersed in extremely deep snow, becomes aware of profound loneliness and isolation. The same feeling returns, the adult speaker tells us, in the present while looking at a blank page or pondering “silences / between human beings.” Perhaps such silences were part of why the children had to get out of the house all those years ago, but the line seems more to be referencing more recent silences, perhaps between son and father or brother and sister.

The next few lines make it clear that those silences are taking place in the present, decades after the childhood snowstorm:

………………………………..The drifting
accumulation. A father goes months
without speaking to his son.

Again conflating the snowstorm and emotional imagery, the “accumulation” describes more than inches of snowfall per hour; it tells of the slow layering of family resentments, regrets, and silences over time. By now, we understand that in the present of the poem when the speaker is an adult, there has been some period of “months” during which her father and her brother have not spoken.

The fifth stanza, the shortest in the poem, is a self-contained couplet that asks a question:

How there can be a place
so cold any movement saves you.

We think again of that literal freezing snowstorm, but the immediate context of these lines makes it clear that the speaker is also referring to an emotional landscape and an emotional coldness. The relationship between father and son, stalled in months-long silence, is at a critical juncture. Simultaneously fraught with peril and rich with the possibility of rescue, it’s one of those ‘tipping points’ where even the smallest movement—one word, perhaps—will suffice to break the stalemate and begin the thaw.

The speaker chooses “movement” and hope. Again using the first-person “you,” she says: “You bang your hands together, / stomp your feet.” This is how people in general rescue themselves from frigid conditions. But we can also read those lines as an injunction, as the speaker telling us—and herself—to do those things, and maybe also telling her father and brother to say or do anything to break the silence between them. The three exclamation points in the last four lines (but nowhere else in the poem) lend urgency to the “orders” being given. In dire cold, a person can’t wait around for the weather to change—it is act now or perish. The father could die, the son could die, and then it would be too late for any kind of rapprochement.

The use of “you” in the couplet quoted above is interesting because the rest of the poem is narrated from the first-person point of view: “my mouth,” “I lumbered,” and so on. Is this the conventional second-person “you,” with the speaker asking the question directly of the reader? That’s a plausible interpretation, and one that suddenly brings the reader much more closely into the poem. It could also be what some call the “first-person you,” where narrators use “you” exactly the way they normally would use “I.” Nye may also be using “you” in a more universal sense, interchangeably with the pronoun “one,” as in “you never know, do you?” In any case, broadening the point of view beyond “I,” “me,” and “my” encourages a more universal reading of the poem, extending its meaning beyond the context of just that one boy and girl on a hill in a snowstorm.

Because this poem invites us to read it as metaphor, it was easy to extend its application to my own life and relationships mired in the snowdrifts of decades, prompting me to wonder if any of them still hold out hope of a thaw. It was a short leap from there to considering  the poem’s application to our country’s current political crisis, neither side really talking to the other, grievances swamping us like a ‘snowpocalypse.’ Here is where “Snow” may offer some hope. Just the tiniest movement can break the spell, it reminds us. Will President-Elect Biden’s calls for unity be enough? We can only hope, but maybe this poem will give us the heart to believe that bridging such abysses are not impossible. Here’s to hope and heart in the new year, everyone! May it be a new beginning for us all.

 

 

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