|by Sarah Rehfeldt|
“First Snow,” poem by Sarah Rehfeldt, reviewed by Scot Siegel
Stepping out into the silence,
the first print of snow
covering the ground –
I can hear it.
Breath escapes our lips
in hard, expectant spirals.
It asks a question –
The answer is enormous.
The threshold from fall to winter is an ethereal place, one that can hold promise or bring ruin. Will the snow stick? Is the new season received as a gift: laughter of children sledding in the streets. Or does it deliver a crushing blow: power lines down, the elderly snowed-in. How do our lives take hold in a new year?
Rehfeldt’s poem must live up to its title. “First Snow” could promise something romantic or foreshadow tragedy. The title potentially carries the baggage of cliché and sentimentality. This poem is deceptively simple. It succeeds, in my mind, because of its simplicity, directness, and lack of ornamentation. This is not James Russell Lowell’s “The First Snowfall” or Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” There is no melodrama, no hard end-rhymes.
Rehfeldt builds onto the literary canon by invoking familiar images (footprints and steam rising from breaths) but uses them in new ways. Here the advancing snowstorm, not the traveler, is “stepping out” and leaving prints. Here puffs of steam from one’s breath rise, not passively, but in “hard, expectant spirals.” The rhymes are shushed, but present, like the sound of skis sliding across a distant frozen lake: silence, snow, lips, spirals, listen, enormous… A question that is larger than us hovers or looms under the ice; it is invisible, yet we “can hear it.”
Times are tough. There is much uncertainty. In “the news” reason gives way to rhetoric, mostly, and we cannot hear the questions over the racket. We know the problems—with the economy, the environment, and the social contract that is/was America, among others—are enormous. But this little poem, in its prescience and contrariness, assures us that “the answer [too] is enormous.”
Rehfeldt’s poem resonates with one of my favorite poems by William Stafford (1914-1993), “Reading with Little Sister: A Recollection” (Crossing Unmarked Snow, University of Michigan, 1998; edited Paul Merchant and Vincent Wixon):
Reading with Little Sister: A Recollection
The stars have died overhead in their great cold.
Beneath us the sled whispers along. Back there
our mother is gone. They tell us, “If you hold on
the dogs will take you home.” And they tell us never
to cry. We’ll die too, they say, if we
are ever afraid. All night we hold on.
The stars go down. We are never afraid.
While Stafford wrote “Reading with Little Sister” late in life—a draft first appears in his daily writings of 26 December 1986—the poem harkens to his childhood in Kansas, a time between world wars when the country sank into the Great Depression. While it is unclear whether the event in the poem occurred during the Depression, or whether it occurred at all, that foreboding presence, that “great cold,” is darkly familiar: It is with us today.
“We are never afraid.” “The answer is enormous.” Stafford’s and Rehfeldt’s end-lines say it all. These compact little poems embrace uncertainty, and that is their strength. Yes, the world is a complicated place, they say—and at times we cannot help but be afraid—but we must remind ourselves, and teach our children—as our “sled whispers along” and “[b]reath escapes our lips,”—that we will push on. Ultimately, this is the only way forward.
Sarah Rehfeldt lives in western Washington with her family. She is a writer, artist, and photographer. Her most recent publication credits include: Third Wednesday; Dappled Things; Stone Voices; Presence Journal; and DailyHaiga. Her photography web pages can be viewed here: www.pbase.com/candanceski
William Stafford (1914-1993). For more information about William Stafford, including links to his writings and the William Stafford Archives at Lewis & Clark College, please see: www.williamstafford.org
Scot Siegel edits Untitled Country Review.