Poetry Sunday: “The Chill of Grace,” by Cathryn Shea

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I found this poem in the latest issue of West Marin Review, a beautifully produced literary journal that started publishing here in the Bay Area a few years ago and is already winning excellence awards. It was winter then, or the (this year very) wet season that passes for winter in California, and I was drawn by images of snow and ice that reminded me of the winters of my east coast childhood. If you saw the film Manchester by the Sea, you’ll know what I mean when I say that in harsh-winter climates, weather becomes a character in your life, something with which you interact and have a real relationship. California’s mild climate means I can exercise out of doors all year round and rarely need worry about foiled plans, but I sometimes miss the exhilaration of struggling with the elements, and I’ll never stop missing the snow.

Climate is a character in this week’s poem, “The Chill of Grace,” by Cathryn Shea. By way of a literary device known as personification, it attributes human qualities to nature, making the wind, for example, into something capable of feeling emotion (“guiltless’) and “winter” capable of action like having “custody” of something. The poem opens in the bleakness and beauty of a real winter landscape, and I was happy to follow its injunction to “climb into the profound snow of high altitudes” and to “be there to listen” to—what? To “the absence of bird song,” that utterly unique silence in which vast amounts of snow muffle even the normally un-mutable sounds of nature. That’s an effective way to start a poem, with an injunction or command, and the writer literally and syntactically demanding your attention. The use of “profound” to modify “snow” is an example of the freshness we look for in poetry and feels just right for describing the landscape in winter mountains. Also unique and apt is the phrase “synod of trees.” An ecclesiastical council, “synod” conveys a sense of sanctity that furthers the argument set up by “profound,” reinforcing that this speaker is talking not just about a spiritual experience in an extreme climate, but also a spiritual one. The poem is full of gems like these, word pairings and phrases that are fresh and powerful and open up into larger meaning; “bitter custody,” “spent feast,” “deck of clouds,” and “sleeted noon” are four more examples.

Besides being an example of personification, attributing human qualities to nature also is a form of pathetic fallacy and of T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” subjects discussed in a previous column. The basic idea is that the poet uses nature as a repository for and a way to express her own emotions. When done effectively, it amplifies and deepens the poet’s expression. During the writing process, these devices give the writer a way to distance herself and gain perspective and so can liberate expression of feeling. For readers, the adjectives and images used to describe the object in nature can be windows on the poet herself, and words like “bitter custody” can mean more than the grip winter holds us in for several months each year. It can, for example, mean something like child custody, both literal in the sense of what is granted following a divorce and metaphorical in the sense of a parent’s care and obligations to a child. When we look at what the poet is describing in the natural scene, we see a strong dichotomy balancing harsh, negative natural images like “stunted pines” and “chiseled sharp” with equally powerful positive images like “crystalline air,” “attenuation of the light,” and “radiance,” moments of terror (“fury”) as well as moments of awe (“wonder”).