Former New Hampshire Poet Laureate Patricia Fargnoli’s Winter is a wisdom text. Wisdom, canonically one of the four cardinal virtues, is defined as the possession or seeking of knowledge, and requires the control or tempering of one’s emotions so that reason prevails. Reading and rereading Winter, a collection I will return to again and again over the years, I am reminded of my favorite of Shakespeare’s late romances, The Winter’s Tale. A romance could play out tragically, but instead the chaos let loose in the play is ultimately healed by magic which, when practiced with proper judgment, is a kind of wisdom: “This is an art which does mend nature, change it rather, but the art itself is nature.” These lines, central to the romance and to the healing that takes place in “The Winter’s Tale,” are equally valid in Fargnoli’s fourth collection. Set in the season of silence, snow, wind and sparseness, Winter is preoccupied with listening to the silences within the natural world (foxes, birds and horses prevail here) as well as to the silences in a life that allows for the return to/of memories the seventy-six-year-old poet has gathered. Take these opening and closing lines from the early poem “Winter Grace”:
If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and known it for its transience . . . .
. . . this is the slowed-down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.
Gorgeous as Fargnoli’s language is, “Winter Grace” is ultimately aware of the loneliness at the heart of winter, loneliness not unlike that of James Wright’s “A Blessing,” except that for Fargnoli, solitude, oneness, is central. The poem’s soft, steady unfolding teaches us what beauty is and simultaneously reminds us to cherish it even more ‘for its transience.’ What I so admire about “Winter Grace” is the way the speaker learns to embrace such loneliness and find gifts—grace—within it.
Meditations like “Winter Grace” become more emotionally charged when read alongside a poem like the structurally ambitious “Father Poem: A Collage.” Arranged in eight parts, “Father Poem” resurrects the poet’s father who, one night near Christmas, brought his small daughter a doll with dark braids, ‘her dress shines in blue satin/as if she were made of stars.’ Memories from a loving if at times difficult past unfold in the present tense, stressing further their prescience, alongside sections in which the speaker contemplates her father’s suicide and charged vanishing:
. . . Wasn’t I enough to keep you here?
Didn’t you ever think of me?
. . . Dark night of your own dark soul father,
don’t you still ride my spirit?
Black horse, black horse galloping.
At Riverside Park I rode a white horse
with a dark-seed eye
and reins I held and the music played.
As you stood by,
the calliope played with a jangabell sound
“Till We Meet Again.”
Father who will not be made small in me ever.
“Father Poem: A Collage” is the kind of poem that emerges out of a lifetime’s struggle to find perspective (and if we are foregrounding wisdom here, to relinquish or at least temper the hurt and betrayal and feelings of loss). Fargnoli covers so much ground in revisiting her history with a father who charmed her, a man who she adored, a man who was far more troubled than her child self could have known. The last line—”Father who will not be made small in me ever”—is so much stronger for the inclusion of “ever.” Rhythmically it adds emphasis, and in terms of meaning, it acknowledges the hugeness of the father, made so much more so by his absence and by the fact that she will never understand what happened to him. And it brings us back to the lines of “Winter Grace”–“. . . you have seen beauty / and know it for its transience”–in the process investing such language with even more embodied authority–“In that stillness, you will learn / with your whole body / the significance of cold/and the night, / which is otherwise always eluding you.”
Winter, then, is a season of stillness; it is also the season that precedes death, a subject with which Fargnoli implicitly wrestles throughout the collection–often with a perspective tempered by humor as in “Advice for the Sleeping Lady.” The penultimate “Maintenance” seems to have the “last word” while reaching back to all the others, and concludes:
Last night I gave a prayer up to the ether,
to the infinity, to the presence or absence,
to a cataclysm of creation and destruction
beyond any I can imagine.
I asked for understanding, some hint of reason
How lovely the overnight snow
illumined by the sidewalk lamp.
It turns to a blue radiance as the icy dawn light slips in
from the east, a chimeric light, a veil made of nothing.
Fargnoli has a great gift for radiant imagery made more powerful through her pitch perfect rhythm and pacing. Winter is a wisdom text, and wisdom ultimately yields to the unknowing. After all, it was Socrates who said, “The more I live the less I know.” In “Maintenance,” the poet speaker gives us an image of her need–“Last night I gave a prayer up. . . . / asked for understanding . . .” She does not resolve what follows this surrender to prayer, and perhaps that’s because her action involved and involves (in “Maintenance”) surrender. Instead, she concludes with an image of astonishing–“How lovely the overnight snow”–and fleeting beauty–“a chimeric light, a veil made of nothing.”
- To Understand the Stone - May 17, 2018
- The Slowed-Down Season: A Review of Winter by Patricia Fargnoli - February 23, 2014