with critique by Jendi Reiter
This snow is a set of wings
Or is it my heart
feathered and flaked
in suspended descent?
It's been coming down all day.
A restless sparrow,
wintering in my breast,
beats within this hollow—
the span of your love,
the size of your hand.
Take heart! (You did.)
Take flight, burdened wings
wet with this affliction
My world is disappearing
from the ground up.
white upon relentless
white covering my tracks.
Covering this and that—
the definition of our days,
your rake and my spade.
Our garden lost its shape.
The lamb's ears, first to go.
And now the earth itself
gone cold, cold, cold.
with the gentle slope.
This wind that wings
your absence. The drift
against my fence—
a row of sharpened pickets
with barely a point left.
Copyright 2004 by Laura Van Prooyen
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Laura Van Prooyen's "Whiteout" stood out among this month's critique submissions for its haunting imagery and deftly economical use of language. Much of the poem's emotional force resides in what is not said, just as you may realize a person's impact on your life only after he is suddenly absent. The poem's clean, short lines are like the snow that creates a smooth surface over the rocky terrain beneath.
Nature and the seasons are among the oldest subjects of poetry. We return to these topics because they make up a basic language of human experience; winter is an instantly recognizable symbol for death and loss, for example. Yet for that very reason, it is particularly challenging to say something original about them.
A good nature poem avoids the extremes of banal description (a landscape with no personal "hook" to make us care) and sentimental projection (a landscape that holds no interest for the speaker save as the reflection of his feelings). "Whiteout" elegantly weaves back and forth between the speaker's interior and exterior landscapes without drawing obvious comparisons between them.
Both the inner and outer worlds in this poem are fully individualized through the use of surprising images, beginning with the opening lines, which caught my attention right away: "This snow is a set of wings/come undone." For me, the payoff in this sentence, the thing that made me interested to read further, is the phrase "set of wings." By choosing "set" over the more common "pair," Van Prooyen startles the reader into taking a closer look, and also suggests something mechanical and disconnected about the wings. A living bird's wings would more likely be called a "pair," whereas a "set" is like a costume, something severable and put on for the occasion. This unsettling picture presages the poem's overall theme of identities being whited out and taken apart: "My world is disappearing/from the ground up."
Another effective technique in this poem is the placement of key words with multiple meanings that add depth to the seemingly simple language. In line 6, for instance, "It's been coming down all day," the word "It" could refer to the snow or to the "descent" that the speaker feels in her heart. The ambiguity requires the reader to hold both possibilities in his mind at once, reinforcing the simile that the preceding lines set up.
In a similar way, the line "Take heart! (You did.)" adds a new, sadder shade of meaning to a familiar exhortation, when read in context with the other images. The line introduces a joyful note of freedom after the frustration of the confined, wintering bird. However, addressed to an absent beloved, the line could also mean "you took my heart away with you" and/or "you took your heart away from me."
The speaker releases the other person with the exquisite lines, "Take flight, burdened wings/wet with this affliction/of want." (Note the assonance of repeated "T" and "W" sounds that add musicality to the lines.) Yet the one left behind now sees her world disintegrate; the snow covers the tracks that their shared lives made, as if it had never been.
This dilemma is summed up in the closing image of the fence "with barely a point left." Again a word ("point") with a double meaning, perhaps posing the question whether the boundaries that were erected by both parties, "this and that,/the definition of our days," were really worthwhile. Did they part because they insisted too much on their own different tools, "your rake and my spade," an argument that seems trivial now that the garden has "lost its shape" entirely?
"Whiteout" combines precision of feeling with a fruitful ambiguity as to plot. I've chosen to read this as a breakup poem, but it could also be a poem about death, or about a parent who feels her identity shaken when her child grows up and becomes more independent. The fundamental themes are the same: loss, renunciation, yet underneath these, a hope that perhaps the speaker too will someday soar above the "affliction/of want." We know that winter ends, but at the time, it often feels eternal.
Where could a poem like "Whiteout" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
New Letters Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: May 19
Highly competitive prize for a group of 3-6 poems
Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: May 31
Sponsored by Calyx, a journal of women's poetry; no simultaneous submissions
Mudfish Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 29
Well-regarded literary journal; 2004 judge is Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman
Baltimore Review Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: July 1
New contest for 2004 from a reputable magazine
This poem and critique appeared in the May 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.