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Not only the Eskimos -- Lisel Mueller

More on snow:
(Poem #1430) Not only the Eskimos
 Not only the Eskimos
 We have only one noun
 but as many different kinds:

 the grainy snow of the Puritans
 and snow of soft, fat flakes,

 guerrilla snow, which comes in the night
 and changes the world by morning,

 rabbinical snow, a permanent skullcap
 on the highest mountains,

 snow that blows in like the Lone Ranger,
 riding hard from out of the West,

 surreal snow in the Dakotas,
 when you can't find your house, your street,
 though you are not in a dream
 or a science-fiction movie,

 snow that tastes good to the sun
 when it licks black tree limbs,
 leaving us only one white stripe,
 a replica of a skunk,

 unbelievable snows:
 the blizzard that strikes on the tenth of April,
 the false snow before Indian summer,
 the Big Snow on Mozart's birthday,
 when Chicago became the Elysian Fields
 and strangers spoke to each other,

 paper snow, cut and taped,
 to the inside of grade-school windows,

 in an old tale, the snow
 that covers a nest of strawberries,
 small hearts, ripe and sweet,
 the special snow that goes with Christmas,
 whether it falls or not,

 the Russian snow we remember
 along with the warmth and smell of furs,
 though we have never traveled
 to Russia or worn furs,

 Villon's snows of yesteryear,
 lost with ladies gone out like matches,
 the snow in Joyce's "The Dead,"
 the silent, secret snow
 in a story by Conrad Aiken,
 which is the snow of first love,

 the snowfall between the child
 and the spacewoman on TV,

 snow as idea of whiteness,
 as in snowdrop, snow goose, snowball bush,

 the snow that puts stars in your hair,
 and your hair, which has turned to snow,

 the snow Elinor Wylie walked in
 in velvet shoes,

 the snow before her footprints
 and the snow after,

 the snow in the back of our heads,
 whiter than white, which has to do
 with childhood again each year.
-- Lisel Mueller
 From "Alive Together: New and Selected Poems", published 1996.

 Many poets have used multiplicity of meaning to lend ambiguity (and
hopefully depth) to their poems, but rarely has the multiplicity itself
been the subject of a poem. The danger here is that the poem descends
into mere boring repetition, a shopping list of definitions. Fortunately
for us, Ms Mueller avoids the pitfall adroitly, with unexpected
metaphors ("rabbinical snow" is my favourite), literary and historical
references, and (at the very end) an unabashed appeal to nostalgia.
Notice how the descriptions become steadily more allusive as the poem
goes on; this adds to the impact of what would otherwise have been a
rather predictable ending.


PS. The LINGUIST mailing list has this to say about the number of words
meaning 'snow' in various Eskimo languages:

17 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

S.A. Robinson said...

incredible...and much better than this poem by Mueller, which I just read this morning..

In November

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with it's old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
as woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

Why the discrepancy? Not Only the Eskimos is tour de force compared with In November...should we seek more consistency from our prize-winning poets, or take what we're offered with simple acceptance?


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