by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
In the afternoons, it’s hard for me to believe that we are only thirteen days from the winter solstice. Day after day here in Southern California, the weather is sunny and exceptionally dry. Our fire season continues to spread destruction in ever-widening circles. It’s only in the chill of the night that this seems like December. Other parts of the country are getting rain and snow, but we are still deep in drought.
So I’m turning to some poetry with traditional winter imagery as a relief from the anxious waiting for our winter rains to begin.
William Morris (1834–1896) is better known as a leader of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and the revival of traditional British textile arts, hands-on production of beautifully made books and furniture. But among his many gifts, he was also a poet, as can be seen even in this brief poem.
I am Winter, that do keep
Longing safe amidst of sleep:
Who shall say if I were dead
What should be remembered?
Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694) is regarded as the greatest master of haiku. He is undoubtedly the Japanese poet best-known outside of Japan.
the moon thinned to a thread,
First Winter Rain
First winter rain –
even the monkey
seems to want a raincoat.
Winter solitude –
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.
Walter de la Mare (1873–1956) was a prolific English poet and writer with a vivid gift for storytelling. He was a master of eerie atmosphere, and ghostly visitations.
Clouded with snow
The cold winds blow,
And shrill on leafless bough
The robin with its burning breast
Alone sings now.
The rayless sun,
Day’s journey done,
Sheds its last ebbing light
On fields in leagues of beauty spread
Thick draws the dark,
And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
Floats the white moon.
Dark frost was in the air without,
The dusk was still with cold and gloom,
When less than even a shadow came
And stood within the room.
But the three around the fire,
None turned a questioning head to look,
Still read a clear voice, on and on,
Still stooped they o’er their book.
The children watched their mother’s eyes
Moving on softly line to line;
It seemed to listen too — that shade,
Yet made no outward sign.
The fire-flames crooned a tiny song,
No cold wind moved the wintry tree;
The children both in Faerie dreamed
Beside their mother’s knee.
And nearer yet that spirit drew
Above that heedless one, intent
Only on what the simple words
Of her small story meant.
No voiceless sorrow grieved her mind,
No memory her bosom stirred,
Nor dreamed she, as she read to two,
‘Twas surely three who heard.
Yet when, the story done, she smiled
From face to face, serene and clear,
A love, half dead, sprang up, as she
Leaned close and drew them near.
Sara Teasdale (1884–1933) was an American lyric poet. She won the 1918 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Love Songs.
A Winter Night
My window-pane is starred with frost,
The world is bitter cold to-night,
The moon is cruel, and the wind
Is like a two-edged sword to smite.
God pity all the homeless ones,
The beggars pacing to and fro.
God pity all the poor to-night
Who walk the lamp-lit streets of snow.
My room is like a bit of June,
Warm and close-curtained fold on fold,
But somewhere, like a homeless child,
My heart is crying in the cold.
Charles Simic (1938– ) was born in Yugoslavia. His family was forced to relocate several times during WWII because of bombing, and became part of the flood of displaced persons after the war, finally arriving in America when Simic was sixteen. His collection, The World Doesn’t End, won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
The truth is dark under your eyelids.
What are you going to do about it?
The birds are silent; there’s no one to ask.
All day long you’ll squint at the gray sky.
When the wind blows you’ll shiver like straw.
A meek little lamb you grew your wool
Till they came after you with huge shears.
Flies hovered over open mouth,
Then they, too, flew off like the leaves,
The bare branches reached after them in vain.
Winter coming. Like the last heroic soldier
Of a defeated army, you’ll stay at your post,
Head bared to the first snow flake.
Till a neighbor comes to yell at you,
You’re crazier than the weather, Charlie.
Deborah Ager (1978– ) is an American poet and editor; co-founder of the magazine 32 poems. Her collection, Midnight Voices, was published in 2009.
Santa Fe in Winter
The city is closing for the night.
Stores draw their blinds one by one,
and it’s dark again, save for the dim
infrequent streetlight bending at the neck
like a weighted stem. Years have built
the city in layers: balustrades filled in
with brick, adobe reinforced with steel,
and the rounded arches smoothed
with white cement. Neighborhoods
have changed the burro trails
to streets, bare at night—
no pedestrians, no cars, no dogs.
With daylight, the houses turned galleries
and stores turned restaurants open—
the Navajos wrapped in wool
crowd the Palace of the Governors plaza
to sell their handmade blankets,
silver rings, and necklaces
to travelers who will buy jewelry
as they buy everything—
another charming history for themselves.
Carolyn Kizer (1925–2014) was a West Coast poet, essayist and translator. She co-founded the journal Poetry Northwest, and was its editor from 1959 until 1965. Her collection Yin: New Poems was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
A Widow in Wintertime
Last night a baby gargled in the throes
Of a fatal spasm. My children are all grown
Past infant strangles; so, reassured, I knew
Some other baby perished in the snow.
But no. The cat was making love again.
Later, I went down and let her in.
She hung her tail, flagging from her sins.
Though she’d eaten, I forked out another dinner,
Being myself hungry all ways, and thin
From metaphysic famines she knows nothing of,
The feckless beast! Even so, resemblances
Were on my mind: female and feline, though
She preens herself from satisfaction, and does
Not mind lying even in snow. She is
Lofty and bedraggled, without need to choose.
As an ex-animal, I look fondly on
Her excesses and simplicities, and would not return
To them; taking no marks for what I have become,
Merely that my nine lives peal in my ears again
And again, ring in these austerities,
These arbitrary disciplines of mine,
Most of them trivial: like covering
The children on my way to bed, and trying
To live well enough alone, and not to dream
Of grappling in the snow, claws plunged in fur,
Or waken in a caterwaul of dying.
Karl Shapiro (1913 – 2000) was an American poet who was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for V-Letter and Other Poems. He served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1946. His poem describes what a wet winter is like in California. May it come again soon.
It is winter in California, and outside
Is like the interior of a florist shop:
A chilled and moisture-laden crop
Of pink camellias lines the path; and what
Rare roses for a banquet or a bride,
So multitudinous that they seem a glut!
A line of snails crosses the golf-green lawn
From the rosebushes to the ivy bed;
An arsenic compound is distributed
For them. The gardener will rake up the shells
And leave in a corner of the patio
The little mound of empty shells, like skulls.
By noon the fog is burnt off by the sun
And the world’s immensest sky opens a page
For the exercise of a future age;
Now jet planes draw straight lines, parabolas,
And x’s, which the wind, before they’re done,
Erases leisurely or pulls to fuzz.
It is winter in the valley of the vine.
The vineyards crucified on stakes suggest
War cemeteries, but the fruit is pressed,
The redwood vats are brimming in the shed,
And on the sidings stand tank cars of wine,
For which bright juice a billion grapes have bled.
And skiers from the snow line driving home
Descend through almond orchards, olive farms.
Fig tree and palm tree – everything that warms
The imagination of the wintertime.
If the walls were older one would think of Rome:
If the land were stonier one would think of Spain.
But this land grows the oldest living things,
Trees that were young when Pharoahs ruled the world,
Trees whose new leaves are only just unfurled.
Beautiful they are not; they oppress the heart
With gigantism and with immortal wings;
And yet one feels the sumptuousness of this dirt.
It is raining in California, a straight rain
Cleaning the heavy oranges on the bough,
Filling the gardens till the gardens flow,
Shining the olives, tiling the gleaming tile,
Waxing the dark camellia leaves more green,
Flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile.
- William Morris – Poems by the Way Love is Enough
- Matsuo Bashō – Bashō: The Complete Haiku
- Walter de la Mare – The Collected Poems of Walter de la Mare
- Sara Teasdale – The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale
- Charles Simic – Sixty Poems
- Deborah Ager – Midnight Voices
- Carolyn Kizer – Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000
- Karl Shapiro – Collected Poems 1940-1978
- William Morris – detail from Twelve Days of Christmas bookcover
- Matsuo Bashō – Temple in Snow
- Walter de la Mare – Robin on winter branch, and Mother Reading by Elsa Beskow
- Sara Teasdale – Homeless Man
- Charles Simic – Snowflake
- Deborah Ager – Palace Avenue, Santa Fe – Laveen Photography
- Carolyn Kizer – Happy cat stretching
- Karl Shapiro – Camellias at Descanso Gardens, Altadena CA
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud