Monday, November 26, 2018

Snow Poems & Robert Bly

This last weekend I pulled a book off the shelf that I hadn't looked through in a while. A collection of poems by Robert Bly, published by White Pine Press: Like the New Moon, I will Live My Life. In it, I read through the poems that were originally included in This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years.

Tree was one of the first books of poetry I ever bought. Even I was stunned that I was spending actual hard cash for poetry. Wha? I was in a bookstore in Philadelphia, looking for Bly's The Light Around the Body (surreal poems centered around the Vietnam War). I couldn't find it - but I did find Tree. I bought it, brought it home, and became entranced by all the "snow" poems (Bly lives in Minnesota, so it's natural there's a lot of snow in his poems).

I was fascinated by how Bly wove together the classical Chinese poetic tradition (of presenting "what is," attempting to close the gap in the duality between "I" and "Other") and the strange little imaginative leaps that resembled the subtle surrealism of modern Scandinavian poets like Tomas Transtrรถmer (Swedish) and Rolf Jacobsen (Norwegian).

No matter where I've lived, snow has always been spell-binding, hypnotic, to me. I can spend hours watching it come down, cover the earth, and mute the world. Bly's poems that include snow always seem to capture how I feel when I watch the snow fall at the beginning of winter. It's close to the feeling I get when driving across the continent and I see a lone streetlight in the far-off distance, casting a pool of blue light on an empty dirt road…

There is also the sadness involved knowing that, because of climate change, snow will gradually (and in some places, very quickly) become "nostalgia," become memory, slip into myth.

Here's what Bly said in the introduction to This Tree:

Many ancient Greek poems, on the other hand, suggest that human beings and the ‘green world’ share a consciousness. Each of the poems that follow contains an instant sometimes twenty seconds long, sometimes longer, when I was aware of two separate energies: my own consciousness, which is insecure, anxious, massive, earthbound, persistent, cunning, hopeful; and a second consciousness which is none of these things. The second consciousness has a melancholy tone, the tear inside the stone, what Lucretius calls ‘the tears of things,’ an energy circling downward, felt often in autumn or moving slowly around apple trees or stars.

Night of First Snow

Night of first snow.
I stand, my back against a board fence.
The fir trees are black at the trunk, white out on the edges.
The earth balances all around my feet.

The apple trunk joins the white ground with what is above.
Fir branches balance the snow.
I too am a dark shape vertical to the earth.
All over the sky, the gray color that pleases the snow mother.

A woman wades out toward the wicker basket, floating,
Rocking in darkening reeds.
The child and the light are half asleep.
What is human lies in the way the basket is rocking.

Black and white end in the gray color of the sky.
What is human lies in the three hairs, caught,
The rabbit left behind
As he scooted under the granary joist.

Here's a prose poem from This Tree:
Solitude of the Two Day Snowstorm

   Supper time…I open the door and go out…something blowing among the tree trunks…our own frail impulses go to shelter behind thin trees, or sail with the wind -
   It is night…this is the time when after long hours alone, I sit with my family, and feel them near…at what I want to do I fail fifty times a day, and am confused…at last I got to bed.
   At five I wake, strong wind around the north bedroom windows, I get up and go out, there is dust of snow on yesterday's ice. The snow grows gradually, the winds do not stop.
   By afternoon, I lie listening to the wind…still going on…rising and wailing, sometimes with a sudden sweep, a woman's skirt pulled swiftly along the floor…at other times it gives a steady growl without anger, like the word "Enoch"…I stand up and look out.
   The crow's head I found by the bridge this summer, and brought home, sits on the window sash, the one black thing before all that white. The head looks intense, swift, decided, the beak partly open, the eyes sunk. Among that soft white, the head looks like a warship…snow-blankets suddenly fall off the window screen behind him…

Other great snow-oriented poems can also be found
in Bly's first book:

Here's one from that book:

Snowfall in the Afternoon

The grass is half-covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.

If I could reach down, near the earth,
I could take handfuls of darkness!
A darkness that was always there, which we never noticed.

As the snow grows heavier, the cornstalks fade farther away,
And the barn moves nearer to the house.
The barn moves all alone in the growing storm.

The barn is full of corn, and moving toward us now,
Like a hulk blown toward us in a storm at sea;
All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.


  1. Thank you for these poems and your blog! I always enjoy it!

  2. Jennifer Sanquer-MasonNovember 28, 2018 at 5:54 PM

    Yes Thanks very much for this gathering of poems ; I didn't know any of them. On climate change: my kids have never seen a real snow fall...the oldest is 10 and I have a picture of her at 1 next to a tiny snowman I thought would be our first together not our last!

  3. I love re-reading this blog after waking up to the news that Robert Bly has left his earthly body. Bly's poetry has been a "home" I've returned to for much of my life. There are poems that pierced me, expressed something in me the first time I read them as a young adult and kept unfolding over the years...Decades later, I marvel at how much more I understand between the lines. Still feel that beautiful piercing but it's much, much deeper. Thank you, dear brother, for being a great influence and pointing me to the paths of remarkable music and poetry and writing (including your own).