Snow Falling From Cedars I – Canadian Winter Photography and Poetry
I find the business of writing poetry – or poems, or rhymes or scribblings or whatever you want to call them – pretty puzzling. At university we read timeless, famous poems of which lines, to this day, pop into my head at the oddest moments: “I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill…” (That’s Wallace Stevens).
I have no doubt that what I write will not make me rich, will not exist after I’ve died, and will probably fail to inspire anything much in anyone else. My metre is laboured, often the rhymes are iffy, I run out of adjectives and I can’t get beyond the clichés. A rather scathing reviewer called this kind of thing “domestic poetry” – small-time stream of consciousness stuff, on unimportant personal issues and temporary themes. At the same time, I can’t seem to stop doing it, because often it’s the the best accompaniment for a beautiful photo – and M.F. O’Brien takes really beautiful photos.
This set was written in 2012, during my first winter in Canada, collected as Snow Falling From Cedars I. The title recalls “Snow Falling on Cedars”, the 1994 novel by David Guterson. Inspiration came from “Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird” and “The Snow Man” from the poetry collection Harmonium, by Wallace Stevens, published in 1917.
The poems in Snow Falling From Cedars I:
5. First Snow Flakes
6. Snow Has No Vanity
8. Five Ways of Looking at Snow
10. Always There
Snow Falling From Cedars
Snow falling from cedars
in the candy-cane-striped forest
sounds and looks like ice cream
dropped from a cone
onto the leaf-packed road
of the forest floor
The wind gently draws
a lacy snow curtain
between the very quiet,
oh so very quiet trees
And the leaves
drip icicles, slowly, soundlessly
while the snow falls loudly from the cedars.
The cycle of poems in this collection is Five Ways of Looking at Snow, with the main idea of using a few of the many terms that the Sami people have for snow. Note please, it’s not the “eskimos”. For each term I wrote a haiku. The haiku is a Japanese verse in three lines. Line one has 5 syllables, line 2 has 7 syllables and line three has 5 syllables. Haiku is a mood poem and it doesn’t use any metaphors or similes.
The introduction, Five Ways of Looking at Snow, is a classical Sicilian Quintain or Cinquain (5 lines) in the rhyme scheme ABABA. This poem has seen many rewrites to get to its current form.
Five Ways of Looking at Snow
With no recall of long ago
when ice and sleet gave winter words,
there is much to pronounce and know
about the many milling herds
of terms the Sami’s tamed for snow.
White light wakes me up
Åppås: Virgin snow without any tracks.
Your heavy boots trudge
Vahtsa: One or two inches of new snow on top of old snow.
Släbsát, pure last night
Släbsát: Snow lying on the ground with animal or human footprints.
Slabttse sadly drips
Slabttse: Falling rain mixed with snow, showing the ground in patches.
On the trees, skilltje
Skilltje: Lumps of snow and ice attached to objects, reindeer moss and trees.
The Snow Queen
In a palace of ice lived the snow queen –
walls of ice crystals,floor
of ice slabs,
windows barred with icicles,
a frozen, callous heart.
But you melted mine with a woolly beanie
and a snotty, frozen kiss on a chairlift,
turning my glacial court
into a sparkling playground.
First Snow Flakes
There, you see it:-
A snowflake, the first one,
drifting sideways, tumbling
in and out the light of the street lamp,
like a silvery feather dropped from
Winter’s pewter wings
folded over the breathless, waiting earth.
And look, there’s another one…
Come out and ski, call the falling snowflakes
networking outside on the window pane
holding each other’s microscopic little hands
and sliding in ranks down the glass
to the mass gathering on the sill,
their tiny, scratchy demands ignored
in favour of the fireplace.
Snow Has No Vanity
Snow goes away
It always does
You try to keep it
Stare hard at, memorize it
Put a ball of it in the freezer
Lick it, sit in it,
lie down and make a snow angel
Think that if you pay attention
it will stay
like a girl who knows she’s pretty
and waits to be appreciated
and if not
sulks and goes off
But it goes away in any case
Of course it does
But it comes back too
in its own, sweet, time
exactly as you remember it
blue-white, hushed, and filled with stars
That is the randomness
and the wonder of it.
The four quatrains in this poem have the same “simple”, ABCB rhyme scheme. It has also gone through a lot of rewrites to get the form right.
On the trail, in patches of shadow,
I lose sight of your slow, plodding tread,
and in panic I search out your profile
against the dense timber ahead,
trying to hear which is your voice,
mid the sibilant, gossipy trees
that may be whispering to me, or
just weaving snow-signs in the breeze.
Panicked for the longest second,
in the twilight, forbidding landscape,
thinking I am lost, or you are,
I see something coming awake:-
A snow-covered tree stump shuffles;
it’s you, bending over your camera.
And I finally see your true nature:
a fixed point in the snowy ephemera.