I was struck by this quiet poem especially, since my husband Jerry and I have been housebound this season as he recovers from back surgery. Jerry’s moved his reading place to the front room where he can watch the snow, its ethereal lake-effect feathers, falling. There’s nothing like having that outside and being warm inside. Over several dinners with friends, we’ve talked about how the enclosure of winter increases the pleasure of being together. There’s a special intimacy.
This poem itself has the quality of both warmth and stiffness of the scene it describes. The crisp twigs of the drying-out Christmas greens, the rattle of needles, the one dropped pearl. A plain and solitary scene made more so by the memory of last week’s party. The furniture is still circled. The remembered criss-crossing conversations somehow reminds me of tinsel wound around a tree. Into the solitariness comes this vision of a circling, of people in their furs, their perfumes, their black and white New Year’s clothing.
As the speaker remembers the brightness and warmth, another memory, that of a friend who’s died, brings a sharp edge now to the scene, a crispness of thought. The “stiff grave.”
Then, in the most interesting move of the poem to me, she sees the marks of starlings and sparrows in the snow as “delightful skull and crossbones.” Joy and sorrow are perfectly criss-crossed in that close-up image.
There’s also the wind, circling — another criss-crossing, carving a smooth arc all the way to the stars and back to the window ledge. That huge arc makes the interior feel even more enclosed.
What a pleasure it is, the poem reminds us at the last, to be human, to have “won” this warmth from space, to be here inside where the light of the snow, and the new year, are mirrored. Mirrored — a criss-crossing of light waves.
There’s both a stillness and a dancing in this poem. Which is how I want to start this new year, noticing both. And seeing that, in a way of speaking, they’re like the opposite sides of a coin. Not separate. Keeping in mind that even in the middle of a warm, enclosed party, there can be a momentary sense of that “previous largeness.”
(Margaret Avison, a Canadian, died in 2007. She was a librarian, social worker, and teacher, who wrote her poetry in the evenings.)
Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.