Some Thoughts on Poems to Keep Cool By

August 8, 2022

  I was surprised not to get any comments on the Poems to Keep Cool by–maybe they worked so well you were too relaxed to respond.  So here are a few thoughts to get things started.

The Naomi Shihab Nye poem sucks me in immediately, with the vivid details–even though it’s in past tense, I’m immersed.  And from the first sentence on it’s clear it’s not just describing a scene, but also giving the context for the speaker’s feelings.  It’s not a typical sledding day–some unhappiness at home has sent them out into a blizzard: inner and outer turmoil.  I feel carefully led through the poem, every surprising step prepared for.  And then the stunning ending, with those italics and exclamation points evoking the way we slap our arms and stamp our feet in the cold, paired with the inner revelations.  It brings together that past with years that followed–and maybe someone did die of that emotional cold.  The simile that sticks?  Digging their cars out “like potatoes.”

As I read this poem I’m reminded that one of Strand’s late books of poems was titled Blizzard of One.  Its sense of time is very different from the Nye poem.  Even though it says “Tonight as it gets cold…,” it’s not a specific night, but one that could be any night.  It’s also incredibly solitary, no other people in the scene or elsewhere.  And it’s an instruction: “Tell yourself,” but that self seems to be the speaker’s, not anyone else’s.  And why should he do that?  So that finally, he “will be able/ for once to like down under the small fire/ of winter stars.”  To not keep going.  Strand’s poems are full of loneliness and darkness, but also incredible beauty, and in the second half of his career, humor–much of it at his own expense.  There’s also a lot of irony, but that’s not what I’m hearing here.  Instead, I’m hearing acceptance, peace, even forgiveness, love of the self.  “And if it happens”–just happens–“that you cannot go on,” it’s not your fault.  I think this is unusual in Strand’s work.  Maybe being able to laugh at himself prepared the way for it.  The image that remains is a metaphor: “the small fire/ of winter stars.”

Levertov’s poem “February Evening in New York” returns us to an actual scene in present tense, winter in the city.  It’s an omniscient narrator rather than a first person speaker, seeing the crowds, anonymous in their winter clothes; then overhearing a conversation between two vivid and particular women.  They seem crucial the poem, those specific people singled out.  In the last stanza the camera zooms back out to take in a wide view of the scene, but those two women humanize the poem, turn the stanzas before and after into the background for their conversation–“more life tonight!”  A glimpse of thawing, a return of personal connections as everyone begins to emerge from winter’s blanketing–“the bodies aren’t really there.”  Image that most sticks with me: “balloon heads/ drift and dive above them….”

Larkin’s poem “First Sight” is also spoken by a third-person narrator and of a general rather than specific time–late winter, lambs being born in snow.  Humans might take the conditions as some sort of sign or omen, but sheep have no sense of the future, no idea that everything is about to change as spring comes.  Only humans know what’s coming, including spring–and, eventually, their own deaths.  The passage of time measured by the seasons is what will eventually carry them there.  It’s an odd little sonnet, fourteen lines evenly divided into two stanzas.  Rhyme scheme AbabCdd EFefGgg.  The image that most sticks: “Her fleeces wetly caked.”

De Unamuno’s poem “The Snowfall is so Silent” seems to be third person–until the very end: “Snow…come and cover over the sadness/ that lies always in my reason.”  Until then it’s a narrator’s description of snow, a portrait of snow and its essence, rather than a description of a scene.  Everything about the snow is positive–“quiet,” “gently”–it protects the fields from frost attacks, it’s “pure” and “silent.”  It’s “content,” even “gay.”  And then the gorgeous image: ” skyflowers,/ pale lilies from the clouds/ that wither on earth.”  The snow falls like grace, but can’t last on earth.  As I read I’m thinking, “Where is this going,” and I’m a little impatient.  Until finally, finally, all of that narrows down at the end to one person, one speaker, pleading for the snow to cover his sadness.  Then that last line has the weight of some Shakespearean sonnet final couplets: it’s equal in weight to the entire poem that came before it.  Piercing.

The only translation I can find is Robert Bly’s.  Here’s the original Spanish, for any of you who want to try your hand at it.

La nevada es silenciosa

La nevada es silenciosa,
cosa lenta;
poco a poco y con blandura
reposa sobre la tierra
y cobija a la llanura.
Posa la nieve callada
blanca y leve;
la nevada no hace ruido;
cae como cae el olvido,
copo a copo.
Abriga blanda a los campos
cuando el hielo los hostiga;
con sus lampos de blancura;
cubre a todo con su capa
pura, silenciosa;
no se le escapa en el suelo
cosa alguna.
Donde cae allí se queda
leda y leve,
pues la nieve no resbala
como resbala la lluvia,
sino queda y cala.
Flores del cielo los copos,
blancos lirios de las nubes,
que en el suelo se ajan,
bajan floridos,
pero quedan pronto
florecen sólo en la cumbre,
sobre las montañas,
pesadumbre de la tierra,
y en sus entrañas perecen.
Nieve, blanda nieve,
la que cae tan leve
sobre la cabeza,
sobre el corazón,
ven y abriga mi tristeza
la que descansa en razón.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” is the most mysterious of these to me.  It’s an early poem of hers, and I’ve been fascinated by it since I first read it–the repeating form, the mysterious iceberg, the surprising opening declaration.  And the ending seems like a forerunner to the end of “At the Fishhouses”: “…our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.”  The point of view is first person plural, “we,” but is that we “we humans,” “we poets and artists,” “we two lovers”?  What does it have to do with the imagination?  I suppose that most of it’s unknown, everything except the tip, and that that’s the heart of art–making the invisible visible, that it’s what drives the imagination.  That takes us to the ending, with the wonderfully old-fashioned and formal “behoove,” and the iceberg akin to the soul in their invisibility.

For me, the details of the Nye poem remain most vivid and moving, but the Bishop poem is the most haunting, the one I never stop thinking about.  How about you?  Leave comments here, and we’ll discuss them at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).  I will, of course, send the link by Friday morning.



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