Poetry Sunday: “Solstice,” by Barbara Crooker

Hope, like the single candle it’s depicted as here, means the most in the dark, and I’m grateful for the one this poem lights in these dark, short days.


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Becky_author photo_cropped_7-12-14Winter solstice was on December 21 last year but to me the winter days always seem shorter and the nights longer in January, so I saved this poem for when we’d need it most. I was not surprised to read that “Solstice” was composed in the aftermath of 9/11. The burning towers are the tipoff, of course, although I did stumble on that “in the west,” since New York is east of California (where I live). Then I realized “west” was less a direction than a designation of half of the world’s culture and civilization, and I understood. I’m not the first to observe that the days following last November’s election felt in their shock, disbelief, and confusion something like the “dark times” described in this poem.

I love “Solstice” for its brevity and simplicity and ability to convey a hope that, if tenuous, at least does not seem foolish or false. Part of its feeling of authenticity is purely structural. Look at the shape on the page: 11 lines, divided into one long-line stanza of five lines giving way to a second shorter-line stanza of six lines. The poem is slightly top-heavy, but the instability is compensated for by the extra line in the second stanza. Somehow to me this conveys a feeling of controlled instability, something that takes effort to maintain and, I think, a reasonable metaphor for hope. Like democracy, it takes work. As Rebecca Solnit says, hope

is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. . .. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. [Rebecca Solnit “Looking into Darkness,” Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books 2016), p. 4.]

The first stanza of “Solstice” sounds almost mythic in the scale and distance with which it populates its archetypes: smoke rising in the east, “rumors of war,” biblical drought, and “glittering” towers toppled like those in Troy. A preponderance of growling –r sounds ramps up the menace in these already frightening images: are, dark, rumors, war, drought, towers, pillar, and bird, occurring at least once in each line. In the second stanza, it is the “-n” sound that dominates:

And this is the shortest day of the year.
Still, in almost every window,
a single candle burns,
there are tiny white lights
on evergreens and pines,
and the darkness is not complete

A linguist could explain why this nasal drone is more comforting than the -r sounds that dominate the first stanza; maybe it’s because buzzing sounds lull us. Or because “-n” reminds us of the word “in” (generally preferable to “out”).

Hope is often depicted as a candle or flame, or light, or a thousand points of light, so what rescues this poem from cliché? Remember that every cliché, before it got so old that we stopped even hearing it, was as powerful as the modern meme. Something—say, “right as rain”—seems so apt, so delightfully right that it catches on and spreads from mouth to mouth and eventually becomes embedded in the language. Overuse makes it stale, but the thing that first made it so right is still there, buried in words grown too familiar to strike their original spark. In a class I teach called “Rehabbing the Cliché,” I give students strategies for harnessing the enormous power inherent in clichés, most of them tricks for startling the reader into really hearing the words again as if for the first time. The strategy used here is to make the cliché concrete, to discover again the actual image or event that originally inspired it. Here, hope is not said to be like a candle in the dark; hope is not even mentioned. What we have instead is a metaphorical darkness invoked by horrific, large-scale events and then, counterpoised, an actual candle placed in a window in observance of some holiday—Christmas or Hanukah maybe—occurring on or near winter solstice. We are made to see the candle in the poem and, like the one set on the sill for night-time travelers, it reminds us what that looks like.

Getting back to the archetypal images in “Solstice,” we know what is really being talked about here: our own recent wars in the Middle East and the ones they spawned, climate change, and New York’s World Trade Center towers reduced to rubble. Here, Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers is “Peace, / a small white bird,” and it has most definitely flown. What’s being described is epic in scale, capital-letter disaster affecting, it seems, entire civilizations. So, while things could certainly get worse, they are already monstrously bad in the first stanza of this poem. To top it all off, stanza 2 tells us, we are in winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This reminds me of that old joke about the food being terrible and there not being enough of it, either. Shouldn’t we be glad that the day won’t last very long, with things as bad as they are?

Of course not, because human nature cherishes the possibility that things can get better. The turn towards hope in the poem is signaled by a disjunctive: “Still, in almost every window, / a single candle burns.” That may seem small solace for the war, drought, and collapse of western civilization, but it’s certainly preferable to no light at all. And there’s more, modest in scale but nevertheless comforting: “tiny white lights / on evergreens and pines.” Light. Life. And the darkness “not complete.” That is something to be grateful for, and something even I in my worst winter mood can believe exists. Hope, like the single candle it’s depicted as here, means the most in the dark, and I’m grateful for the one this poem lights in these dark, short days.

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  • Patsy April 19, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    Enjoyed several of the poems.