Thursday, January 22, 2009

Snow and Fire

Perhaps it is the temperature hitting 41 a couple of days ago, or today's news that Lake Wendouree is on fire - the lake has been dry for a while (see the No Swimming sign), but I have been thinking of snow - one of the many things I miss about living in Europe - les neiges d'antan! Louis MacNeice uses this phrase from Villon as a title of one section of 'Out of the Picture', but it is a short poem of his, written a few years later, that came to mind. It directly captures the dreamfeel in the clarity and surreality of the image:

The Brandy Glass

Only let it form within his hands once more --
The moment cradled like a brandy glass.
Sitting alone in the empty dining hall...
From the chandeliers the snow begins to fall
Piling around carafes and table legs
And chokes the passage of the revolving door.
The last diner, like a ventriloquist's doll
Left by his master, gazes before him, begs:
'Only let it form within my hands once more.'

There's a recent review in The Times by Paul Batchelor
of George Szirtes Collected Poems. I first came to Szirtes via the book Reel, which I found myself returning to many times, and have since worked my way backwards with An English Apocalypse and The Budapest File. The 520-page Collected is a real treat. Batchelor's review makes special reference to snow: "Snow invariably wakens something special in Szirtes; he is drawn to its transience" and quotes the following lines

Snow takes form: the shapes it makes mount up
and vanish against sky, a paler more transcendent
cloud, a broader emptiness, briefly dependent
on whatever it clings to, fit for the hands to cup
and pack solid.

And I am reminded of an Alan Brownjohn poem, 'Snow in Bromley' which appeared in the October 1958 issue of Poetry and Audience, and the July/August issue of New Left Review and discussed and quoted at some length by Roger Garfitt in his essay 'The Group'. I first came across it in the Brownjohn / Hamburger / Tomlinson Penguin Modern Poets #14, purchased around 1981 secondhand for $2.80 on the way home from school.

Snow in Bromley

As of some unproved right, the snow
Settles the outer suburbs now,
Laying its claim unhurriedly
On gnome and monkey-puzzle tree.

Observe its power to shape and build,
Even in this unfruitful world,
Its white informal fantasies,
From roofs and paths and rockeries.

And swayed by such soft moods, I fall
Into forgiving nearly all
The aspirations of the place,
And what it does to save its face:

The calm and dutiful obsession
With what is 'best in our position',
The loyal and realistic views,
The rush-hours with the Evening News --

The snow fulfils its pure design
And softens every ugly line,
And for a while will exorcize
These virulent proprieties.

Within one mile of here there is
No lovelier place to walk than this,
On days when these kind flakes decide
That what it boasts of, they shall hide.

Reading it now I am struck by the 17th-century poise and wit of the ending ... the fleeting conceit of snow 'deciding', the parenthetical syntax, the full end rhyme. And this reminds me too of early Thom Gunn, take for instance the final stanza, and especially the final line, of the poem 'Lerici' from his 1954 collection Fighting Terms ...

Byron was worth the sea's pursuit. His touch
Was masterful to water, audience
To which he could react until an end.
Strong swimmers, fishermen, explorers: such
Dignify death by thriftless violence --
Squandering with so little left to spend.


Alan Baker said...

41 degrees! That's about 41 degrees hotter than here right now. Ou sont les neiges d'antan? is a question I ask when I think about the snowy winters of my childhood (1960s) compared to the snow-free winters we have now.

As you live in Melbourne, you must know Kris Hemensley? Collected Works ordered some of the Leafe Press Bonnefoy (The Beginning and End of the Snow), variations on snow as metaphor over a whole collection. They may have some left...

david lumsden said...

I've known Kris for more than twenty years - he's a close friend. I'll ask him to put aside one of the Bonnefoys for me.

The weaker winters were something much discussed in Poland - although it was often below -20 and sometimes touching -30 while we were there. I once got on a plane in Melbourne in 43 degree January heat and stepped out onto the tarmac at Warsaw (airport renovations meaning bus from plane to terminal) in minus 27 ... a neat 70 degree difference!