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

Shea invokes many of the bodily senses to draw us into the scene. We see and feel those “trees bent with [the] weight,” and hear that “absence of bird song.” We also feel the freezing cold, and in one remarkable image feel that cold by seeing it as “steam from your body.” Also triggered are emotions such as fear of impending avalanche, as well as despair and its antidote, “grace.” Taste is evoked and revoked in the same breath of “spent feast.” The only sense not represented is smell, and that seems right, because if you’ve ever been at altitude in winter you’ll know there is rarely anything to smell, and your nasal passages are generally too frozen to apprehend it anyway. Sight, hearing, touch, and taste—all are invoked, and in many cases are invoked by their absence in the use of another literary device called via negativa. Calling things forth by their denial is an old literary tradition, particularly effective here where it mimics what actually happens in extreme winter landscapes: a blotting out of the senses.

Blotting out is an important theme in the poem, one that becomes explicit at the end. We have seen that the landscape is bleak and harsh, qualities reflecting anxiety, despair, and perhaps even bitterness in the speaker. What is the source of these feelings? Literally in the poem, the fear is of avalanche, but we can also read that as the speaker’s fear that her own very strong feelings of rage or “fury” will be unleashed. One clue to the source of these feelings is line 8: “how you raised your children.” Did you, like I did, find that line surprising? The surprise of what it says is heightened by how it is said, in the poem’s first short line and first line to employ fewer than five beats. (Meter is mostly regular up to this point, with four beats per line in the first stanza and five in the second. Line 8, though, has only three stresses: “how you raised your children.”) The hope being expressed here and in the preceding line is for grace that will allow the speaker to forgive herself for what she perhaps perceives as her shortcomings as a mother. We sense guilt and regret, and in this context words like “bitter custody” and “guiltless knowledge of the wind” take on new and expanded meaning.

This poem is an example of a dramatic lyric, one that combines elements of emotional expressiveness with a real situation and conflict that asks to be resolved. The conflict here is not just the classic one of Man versus Nature, but also one within the speaker herself; we sense real pain and a yearning to be relieved of that pain. One way to relieve pain is to root out its source. The physical pain of being cold is alleviated by warmth, by “the sun,” and “[s]ometimes that is all we “want;” that is, we want the source of the pain to go away. But life doesn’t always allow that option, particularly when the pain is emotional or spiritual. Sometimes we want or must settle for something else instead: an utter giving in to the pain until we reach a point of oblivion, captured in this poem’s gorgeous last lines as “Wild like a sleeted noon, / a whiteout to erase the road.” In my experience as a daughter and as a mother, motherhood mixes powerful positive and negative experiences—that kind of love evokes radiance as well as the fury (sometimes on both sides!) of an avalanche. Shea manages to hold these opposites together in a way that mimics real life, and for me is the mark of a very powerful poem.