Last week it snowed in New York (and presumably throughout the Northeast, but we New Yorkers notoriously don’t pay much attention to the other regions of the world unless forced to.) Public schools insisted on remaining open, since students are attending remotely anyway, and at the park I was glad to see many parents ignoring this dispiriting policy and instead dragging their kids around on sleds. Everyone needs to have some fun.
These two pieces are thematically pretty distinct from one another, apart from the presence of ice and snow within them, and maybe a quality of drawing the reader to “the hiding places… out in those long spaces,” which a critic noted in the work of today’s poet, William Stafford.
Camille Pissarro, Morning Sunlight on the Snow, Eragny-sur-Epte, 1895
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
Who is this person?
Take heart, late bloomers: William Stafford published his first book of poetry at the age of forty-six. That didn’t stop Stafford, born in Kansas in 1914, from becoming one of the United States’ most prolific poets, and his work is known for its themes of pacifism and deep connection to the land. Stafford spent much of World War II in internment camps for conscientious objectors; after that, he worked a number of professions, including as a farm laborer, firefighter, and staffer for the Forest Service. He earned a Ph.D in literature and creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1955, and went on to publish multiple collections of poetry and books on the craft of writing. Of Stafford’s work, Frederick Garber wrote, “The long spaces which stretch ahead of us, compelling our half-willed entry into them; that curious Other, ... whose hiding-places and motivation are out in those long spaces and have to be sought for there—this is essential Stafford.”
One sunny morning I woke and pushed aside a corner of the blinds. Above the frosted, sun-dazzled bottom of the glass I saw a brilliant blue sky, divided into luminous rectangles by the orderly white strips of wood in my window. Down below, the back yard had vanished. In its place was a dazzling white sea, whose lifted and immobile waves would surely have toppled if I had not looked at them just then. It had happened secretly, in the night. It had snowed with such abandon, such fervor, such furious delight, that I could not understand how that wildness of snowing had failed to wake me with its white roar. The topmost twigs of the tall back-yard hedge poked through the whiteness, but here and there a great drift covered them. The silver chains of the bright-yellow swing-frame plunged into snow. Snow rose high above the floor of the old chicken coop at the back of the garage, and snow on the chicken-coop roof swept up to the top of the garage gable. In the corner of the white yard the tilted clothespole rose out of the snow like the mast of a sinking ship. A reckless snow-wave, having dashed against the side of the pole, flung up a line of frozen spray, as if straining to pull it all under. From the flat roof of the chicken coop hung a row of thick icicles, some in sun and some in shade. They reminded me of glossy and matte prints in my father’s albums. Under the sunny icicles were dark holes in the snow where the water dripped. Suddenly I remembered a rusty rake-head lying teeth down in the dirt of the vegetable garden. It seemed more completely buried than ships under the sea, or the quartz and flint arrowheads that were said to lie under the dark loam of the garden, too far down for me to ever find them, forever out of reach.
It was not until the afternoon that the first snowmen appeared. There may have been some in the morning, but I did not see them, or perhaps they were only the usual kind and remained lost among the enchantments of the snow. But that afternoon we began to notice them, in the shallower places of front and back yards. And we accepted them at once, indeed were soothed by them, as if only they could have been the offspring of such snow. They were not commonplace snowmen composed of three big snowballs piled one on top of the other, with carrots for noses and big black buttons or smooth round stones for eyes. No, they were passionately detailed men and women and children of snow, with noses and mouths and chins of snow. They wore hats of snow and coats of snow. Their shoes of snow were tied with snow-laces. One snowgirl in a summer dress of snow and a straw hat of snow stood holding a delicate snow-parasol over one shoulder.
I imagined that some child in the neighborhood, made restless by our snow, had fashioned the first of these snow statues, perhaps littler more than an ordinary snowman with roughly sculpted features. Once seen, the snowman had been swiftly imitated in one yard after another, always with some improvement—and in that rivalry that passes from yard to yard, new intensities of effort had led to finer and finer figures. But perhaps I was mistaken. Perhaps the truth was that a child of genius, maddened and inspired by our fervent snow, had in a burst of rapture created a new kind of snowman, perfect in every detail, with others later copied with varied success.
—Steven Millhauser (Read the rest here; you’ll need to login, but you can do so through your school or local library)
Who is this person?
Born in New York City in 1943, Steven Millhauser is one of those authors of novels and short fiction saddled with the dubious honor of being a “writer’s writer.” (What this means has never been clear to me; I think anyone can enjoy his work, and it may be just a matter of learning how to read his work.) He is a Pulitzer Prize winner for the novel Martin Dressler and has published nine story collections and four novels but remains, in the estimation of many critics, under-read. What I love about many of his stories is their themes of the quest for perfection, how their protagonists painstakingly undertake impossible, fantastical tasks, which culminate in conclusions at once inevitable and deeply satisfying. As Aaron Thier wrote in a review of the stories in the collection We Others, “Their beauty depends not on the resolution of narrative problems but on the transformative effect produced by a knowledge of their architecture. These stories have a mesmerizing quality—they seem at once methodical and magical—and to read them is to follow the action of an elaborate machine whose function is to produce something simple and fundamental—a glass bottle, for instance, or a billiard ball. Somehow the elaborate process doesn’t match the product, and the bottle seems to be more than itself, perfectly recognizable and perfectly alien.”
Millhauser’s “Snowmen” begins grounded in the seemingly ordinary occurrence of a child waking to find it has snowed overnight. There are hints, though, that there’s something unreal about this snow (which has somehow created “a line of frozen spray” suspended in the air.) The fantasy deepens as the narrator explores his town and finds snowmen constructed with an impossible level of detail; then he and his friends begin creating their own. Write a poem or story that follows this pattern, of opening in the quotidian and then sliding into the realm of fantasy.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to email@example.com