Jan 12, 2014

Two Snow Scenes: Maureen Seaton and Naomi Shihab Nye

Here are two poems sharing the title “Snow,” the first by Maureen Seaton  (1991) Snow by Maureen Seaton : The Poetry Foundation   and the second by Naomi Shihab Nye (1998).  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19970

They are an invitation for us to think about this season and all seasons (add in Wallace Stevens” “The Snow Man” last time). Do you have a preference?

What would you write about snow? What do you remember because of snow? Is it simple or complex and nuanced? What are some of the specific details?

Because Seaton’s poem is overtly political and Shihab Nye’s is domestic and personal, I might be asking for a comparison of fire hydrants and cauliflower. So let me say up front that what interests me is that Seaton’s gritty New York portrait of biracial lesbian lovers, from different socioeconomic strata, seems no more interesting or “deeper” than Shihab Nye’s recollection of a girl pulling her younger brother up a snowy hill on his sled.
Not a Winter Hill, Not a Sled

This pair of poems illustrates, for the ten-thousandth time, that the devil really is in the details. I learn more from and about Shihab Nye’s children than I do from Seaton’s adult characters, though I’d have thought them more significant, richer material, caught as they are in the midst of just about every major prejudice.

Here are three gems from Shihab Nye that might compel our deeper wondering about sister, brother, and family, both then and now:

    my brother whom I called by our secret name//
    as if we could be other people under the skin.

    People would dig their cars out like potatoes. 

    How are you doing back there? I shouted,
    and he said Fine, I’m doing fine, 
    in the sunniest voice he could muster 
    and I think I should love him more today
    for having used it. 

She should love him more? What is the gap that remains between them as adults? In the childhood home, there was an unexplained “raging blizzard of sobs,” and now we might wonder about secret names, or being “other people under the skin.” Shihab Nye might be teasing us with incomplete information, but at least she is imbuing her characters with ample human complexity.

In Seaton’s “Snow,” the information is also incomplete, but that’s less about mystery and complexity than turning humans into political types. I don’t know enough about the lovers to determine whether I want still more info. Are they statistics in a sociological pamphlet, or are they intriguing, multidimensional humans? Both? They are not individualized enough for me to feel I know them.
Dove and Dark-Eyed Junco

I’m inclined to like the two, but consider the second stanza where the speaker confesses her white guilt:

         [I]  strolled along the river, believing
         I belonged there, that my people
         inherited this wonderland
         unequivocally, as if they deserved it.

There’s a social consciousness there, and I’m glad the speaker sees her unfair advantages in finding fine housing. But if we’re the kind of people who read serious poetry, aren’t we just as likely to say, “What took you so long to notice and care about these inequalities?”

I’d be more moved by the situation if there were more thorough characterization, with or without a sociopolitical context, such as these interesting lines about the lover:

               My lover buys twinkies from the Arabs,
                bootleg tapes on ‘25th,
                and carries a blade in her back
                pocket although her hands
                are the gentlest I’ve known.
                She ignores the piss smells
            on the corner . . .  

In that brief passage, she comes alive,
so I’d like to know her and the speaker in more contexts like this. I wonder if the poem’s situation lends itself better to fiction or essay than poetry.

I’m not satisfied with either poem’s conclusion, and in both works, I want more information. But at least both poems interest me enough to wish for a more complete understanding of their characters.

Snow by Maureen Seaton : The Poetry Foundation




Hannah Stephenson said...

What I love in this Naomi Shihab Nye poem is how much is said between the lines (the mysterious crying at home that the children are escaping from, the silences between us, etc.).

This morning, I was listening to Ander Monson's essay, "I Have Been Thinking About Snow":

Jean Spitzer said...

First photo is beautiful.

With typical LA attitude, I love snow, rush to go out when it is snowing. Useful attitude for Chicago, where there is plenty of snow, ice, slush this season.

Stickup Artist said...

I like both poems; one from the pov of a child, one an adult. As kids, we plopped our sleds right outside our garage, rode down a quarter mile driveway, turned right onto a downhill mile of country road, and ended at a frozen stream. Good times...

Julie Brown said...

I think snow makes us more contemplative because it forces us to slow down.

Anonymous said...

I thought Nye tipped her hand, beautifully, with, How there can be a place so cold/ any movement saves you.

Estrangement, within the family, and any gesture, any gesture at all, will be accepted and considered significant.

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, thanks for the tip on Ander. I like the way he uses ultra-specific details.

Jean, thanks. Yes, quite a winter in the upper Midwest.The more LA one can be about it . . .

Stickup, I have some memories like that, but I think my good snow events ended in high school. Too bad, for it is pretty, and . . .

Julie, yes, surely it leads to extra contemplation for a lot of people.

AH, yes, I'm intrigued by the possibilities of what happened in that house. Reminds me of Robert Hayden's great but puzzling line, "the chronic angers of that house."

Lovers' Lane