The Winter Poet
I play Saturday-night lookout from my favorite perch in our house.
Halfway between the first and second floors, a landing rests between sets of stairs, its companion window overlooking the north edge of our neighborhood. On the last watch of this January night, snow falls. Just enough to striate the roof next door, to worry the concrete below, to present the sky with a picture of its former light.
I aspire to be a man of all seasons. Integrated, carrying myself the same all twelve months. But the pieces of me know their place.
I aspire to be a man of all seasons. Integrated, carrying myself the same all twelve months. But the pieces of me know their place. Born in mid-December, bent toward melancholy, predisposed to a certain order: stillness before sound, frost before comfort. I come most alive in winter.
Clipping along the covered sidewalks which carve the center of my Midwest collegetown, my true soul lifts its gaze. Meeting the blowing snow, making eye contact with the ghost of a kindred spirit. He wears matted hair, whiter than this storm, but the lines across his face compose and seal in impishness. Mild snowflakes stinging cannot break our gaze, electricity passed between before we nod, trudging on.
Though he died eight years ago this March, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer lives on, my fellow traveler of winter nights.
Mood drives my movement through the world. Magnets pull me down certain trails, into curated moments. Some nights—most nights—I labor over my writing soundtrack, knowing what’s between my ears affects the overflow of my heart. (For the record, this column finds you thanks to a 12-year-old record by Michigan folk band Frontier Ruckus, followed by jazz great Bill Evans at the piano.)
Growing into my winter disposition, I once envisioned reading along with the season, with a drink to match the mood. The Russian novelists and a suitable stout. Maybe a pint of North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin; though made in California, its viscous, beautiful dark twins the starless nights of the souls endured on these pages.
Real moods always strike differently. Tranströmer sends me to the upstairs window, then burrowing into a chair to make sense of what I witness. Gin and soda in a glass, maybe the last swallows of a rye Manhattan.
Surely other winter poets entrance. There’s revelry in the way Franz Wright describes snow’s smell—how it pushes us together, toward a hope that’s “unendurable, unendurable.” Louise Glück writes Decembers in all their stark romance. And I adore Maya Popa’s lines “December a descant and a North Star / like a North Star” in her latest collection.
Tranströmer cannot fail me in any season. He writes of “the soft smudgy May night” and June mornings near “greenery that’s crammed with memories, that follow me with their eyes.” Thanks to his pen, “a shower falls out of the milk-white summer sky” and a “late autumn labyrinth” whispers, bidding the reader come, enter.
But faithful to his native Sweden, and unwittingly true to me, his inner furnace quietly roars through the winter. In some poems, winter supplies setting—for the recognition of nature’s symmetries, its glorious codependence. And place enough to settle into yourself.
In the second act of “Loneliness,” Tranströmer’s speaker traverses frozen fields without encountering a single soul. This solitary state revives a crucial piece of himself:
I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
— Without a program.
Only then, the poem concludes, when roused by this loneliness, do we truly see the fullness of others, embodied and eager to live in light of each other.
This clarity, not the cold, endures as winter’s defining feature, Tranströmer posits.
In “The Winter’s Glance,” the season is a cathedral (“Brief devotions when some hatch opens above us / and a weak light falls”). And in “Below Freezing,” just “a spot” of winter sun carves up obligation, offering something like holy clarity, space enough to hear “a biblical saying never set down: ‘Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.’”
This clarity, not the cold, endures as winter’s defining feature, Tranströmer posits. Our breath meets no resistance—we see it as it is. Leaves do not lose their togetherness in a series of passive acts. They give themselves up in sacrifice, directing our gaze to what remains of sky and limbs and spaces between. It is, the poet suggests, as if all the music of this world takes its rest, leaving us to hang upon the syllables of remaining a cappella voices.
From within this clarity, as the poem “Winter’s Formulae” displays, we recover light (“The hospital pavilions / glow against the darkness / like lighted tv screens”); music (“a hidden tuning fork / in the immense cold / emits its ringing hum”); and movement (“I stand under starry sky / and feel the world crawl / in and out of my coat / as in an anthill”).
As Tranströmer trains our senses, we encounter storms not as sources of fear, but the application of perfect love at a painter’s hand. We tune to the strange, consoling music of spare mornings: “Out of the winter gloom / a tremolo rises / from hidden instruments,” he writes.
And we still ourselves long enough to hear the Earth give up its secrets, finding itself. “Precisely because the sky is gray / the ground itself becomes luminous,” he writes in “November Luster of Precious Furs.” The world receives its “roof” as “sun glints from the frozen river” in “Along the Lines.”
Once the Earth recaptures its spirit, it mercifully extends wisdom to its inhabitants. In the coda to “Along the Lines,” winter offers something like absolution for the ways we walk falsely through our lives:
My steps here were explosions in the field
that are now being painted by silence
painted by silence.
When the world is most itself, so am I, Tranströmer says. Winter allows us this grace, tearing down every temple—at least hushing the music which radiates out from the fine cracks in their stony facades—and initiating the process of repairing, rebuilding, redeeming.
Within this atmosphere, we meet sacred possibilities; moments which invite our worship precisely by stripping us of the usual trappings. In one of Tranströmer’s most nakedly joyful poems, “C Major,” he writes of passing people who smile because—not despite—they wear “turned-up collars.”
And all the question marks began singing of God’s being.
So he thought.
A music broke out
and walked in the swirling snow
with long steps.
Everything on the way towards the note C.
A trembling compass directed at C.
Hope, contra Wright, is something worth enduring on our way to embracing, he writes.
I live within the blessed contradictions of his winter verses: cold but comforted, cloaked yet exposed, lonely and not alone.
Each day, I wrap my hands around a certain number of sympathies. From late October through late March, I open them in offering to friends and strangers who curse the season I love best. I know their reasons; they connect in my mind, even if they collapse inside my heart.
But Tranströmer shows me what there is to love in every season. I live within the blessed contradictions of his winter verses: cold but comforted, cloaked yet exposed, lonely and not alone.
When we meet beneath the open-air canopy of winter’s cathedral, I cannot speak or read his native tongue on my own—I always read him translated. But found, not lost, in that translation is a language with countless words in common, a language for those who find their true voice in northern lights and southern awe, in footprints across snow and wind whipping out its song, and in the grand and meaningful caesuras that come as we gaze upon the gray.