SNOWFALL IN G MINOR

Overnight, it’s pow!  The held note
 keeps falling.  And only seems
 slow.  Because it’s just
 frozen rain, what's the big deal? the checker
 in Stop and Shop told me.
                           Save warmth
 like stamps. The fade of their color
 in the 1920s.  Airmail.  The pilot with his
 skin-tight goggle helmet on his
 miniature head could be
 snow-blind.
            All heads are small. Mine’s
 lost as a thimble
 in this weather. Where
 a finger should be and be
 sewing, every thought
 I ever thunk.
               I love the word
 thunk. Never used.
 It lands, noisy
 metal in a bucket. That’s
 the last of it.  No echo
 for miles of this
                   snowfall—as in
 grace, fallen from,
 as in a great height, released
 from its promise.

Marianne Boruch, Grace, Fallen From (Wesleyan, 2008)

Marianne Boruch grew up in Chicago, thirty miles from my own Lake County, Indiana. Up there, a couple of inches of snowfall was a “dusting,” and we never used the B word for anything under a foot. Since 1987, Boruch has taught in the MFA program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, after a stint at the University of Maine, which means that she has lived in the snowbelt all her life.

This winter we’ve scarcely had two inches. So to get the feel of a real winter, I turn to Boruch’s poem, starting with the title “Snowfall in G Minor.” Why shouldn’t a heavy snowfall be in a musical key, especially a minor one? After all, so many wintry Frost poems—“Stopping by Woods” and “Desert Places”—seem melancholic. And the obliterating whiteness of a big snow can erase all traces of the familiar.

But after that string quartet of a title, Boruch shakes up the first line with “pow!” Is this Carnegie Hall or Batman? That wildness of register is Boruch’s point: extreme moments push language and perception to the brink: “The held note / keeps falling. And only seems / slow.” And the poems of our century like to take their curves fast, zigzagging from classical music to the checker at the Stop and Shop in a single stanza.

The poem continues its slalom down the page, swerving from one association to the next.  No sooner does the wintry landscape provoke a desire to “save warmth / like stamps” when the speaker is off to the faded, goggled pilot stamps of the Twenties. Snow, too, is a kind of airmail, and like the pilot’s tiny head, the speaker’s feels “lost as a thimble / in this weather”—blank, devoid of “every thought I ever thunk.” Like “pow” connoting surprise in the first line, “thunk” helps convey the absence of thought better than any highfalutin philosophizing might.

These onomatopoeic words also remind us this poem is about sound. A classic snowfall muffles the world, mutes our minds. For the poet, this erasure can be terrifying: in “Desert Places,” Frost describes a “blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express.”

Still, Boruch is hardly in Frostian drag here. She’s riffing on the New England poet, but in a way that changes his tone. “I love the word / thunk,” she says. “It lands, noisy / metal in a bucket.” What can save us from pretension, even sanctimony, are the humblest words, the ones that clangily disrupt the carefully composed sonata, though they too disappear in the drifts of a wintry night.

Boruch, in the end, sees the snowfall as a “grace.” American poets don’t use that word much anymore, and Boruch hedges it with qualifying syntax and edgy line breaks. The phrase “fallen from grace,” long used for politicians and other sinners fallen from favor, is qualitatively different than “grace, fallen from.” The syntactic inversion puts grace first, which makes the ensuing “fallen from” sound neutral rather than judgmental. For the poet, the silence after snowfall can itself be a grace, poetic language released from the heights of Parnassus, making room for the “noisy” thunk.

The writer Susan Neville, Boruch’s close friend, has described her as “the most Catholic lapsed Catholic I know.” Traces of Boruch’s girlhood spent in parochial school remain in her poetry, particularly in titles like The Book of Hours and “What God Knew,” but in a refracted way, freed from the certainties of the Baltimore Catechism, allowing for the ricochet of the inquiring spirit. She does what Elizabeth Bishop wanted her poems to do: “to convey not thought but the mind thinking.”

I’m writing this in the season of Lent, just after the hullabaloo of Super Tuesday’s “holier than thou.” No wonder I’m missing a snowfall.

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