My friend said the first snow always felt
immaculate – she couldn’t wait to play in it.
But she didn’t grow up near a highway where
any accumulation turned gray before your eyes.
And she didn’t have a father like mine, a man raised
by his mother’s images of the worst catastrophes.
The first snow of the season has always seemed particularly special to me; I’ve always attributed it to a number of personally relevant events. My family moved from Connecticut to Florida when I was eight, and no cheery talk about the beach could relieve my longing for snow forts and sledding (which were merely the more tangible representatives of the real issue, my loss of best friends, the third move in four years, and my mother’s illness and, six months into Florida, her death, a subject which was never mentioned again after the funeral). But maybe for everyone in northern climes, the first snow is a moment that brings us to the reality of winter, forces a moment of reflection that, unlike birthdays or New Year’s, occurs randomly yet dependably annually.
The speaker in Hollander’s poem has a personal connection to the first snow, very different from mine but just as intense. She sees it as a metaphor of her upbringing, the sense that under every couple of fluffy white inches there may be a steel wolf trap waiting to snap shut on her vulnerable ankle, or just a leaf that could cause her sole to slip. Kids will run barefoot across an open field until they step on a broken bottle and need stitches. They’ll ride their bikes in traffic without helmets until a friend dies. We learn the dictates of our parents, yes, but we also learn from experience, which is why age brings caution.
Since I’m not a parent, I’ve never had to deal with figuring out just how to warn children about the dangers that lurk. Today’s dangers seem particularly alarming – faces on milk cartons, stranger danger, if you see something say something. But we had our dangers in my youth as well: duck and cover, Conelrad, Vietnam. The generation before me had civil defense wardens and blackout curtains, and before that, bread lines and bank failures. What’s the golden mean, the path between foolhardy optimism and terrified pessimism?
The speaker moves from childhood to the recent past by the end of the poem, because no matter what the lessons of childhood, love has a logic and a vision all its own. If you believe every line every clown throws at you, you’re a fool, but eventually loneliness outweighs caution and you have to trust someone, sometime. Often it works out. Often, it doesn’t. Often it seems to work out until it doesn’t (all those couplets, ending in a single line).
It’s possible to find an accumulation of syllables in this poem; just look at the first line for instance:
My friend – two–beat phrase
said the first snow – four-beat phrase
always felt immaculate – seven beat phrase
– she couldn’t wait to play in it. – eight beat phrase
But of course, that requires arranging it in that way (which may be foolhardy) and not as My friend – said – the first – snow – always – felt – immaculate, 2-1-2-1-2-1-2-2, which might be a more accurate (if cautious) metrical analysis.
Which do we choose? Which do we teach, and which scold? And does it matter, since we all think we know better than our parents, anyway?