Poem of the week

A Mind of Winter by Martha Kapos

This time, a striking contemporary poem whose apparent clarity conceals some intriguing mystery as it pays homage to Wallace Stevens

Snow-covered window

Cold thoughts … a window covered with ice.

This week’s poem, “A Mind of Winter”, is by Martha Kapos, and comes from her most recent collection, Supreme Being (Enitharmon, 2008). As one of the reviewers who admired the collection, I liked its combination of linguistic nuance and emotional intensity. The poems often seem to be acts of mourning, but under such strong, imaginative pressure that absence becomes presence. To borrow that transformative pun from George Barker’s little masterpiece, “To My Mother” they “move from mourning into morning.”

Helen Vendler has pointed out that many American poets in the second half of the 20th century wrote in response to their modernist predecessors. Women poets, in her view, are excluded from this project, partly because of the want of female role models. Kapos, an American poet, though long settled in Britain, is proof, if any were needed, that gender does not dictate a poet’s choice of mentor.

For Kapos, the presiding spirit is Wallace Stevens. His influence can be felt occasionally at a technical level, in stringent craft and sonorous phrases, but, more importantly, it colours her imaginative philosophy. Poetry for Stevens was, famously, “the supreme Fiction”: in fact, it was the most sublime fiction of all. “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place in life’s redemption.” However, while Kapos is profoundly serious about poetry’s powers of transformation, she registers a 21st-century challenge, and, for her, untidy and recalcitrant humans may also enter the poem’s heart-room as the Supreme Being.

“A Mind of Winter” looks solid, with its firmly-packed six- or five-line stanzas, but it’s mysteriously hard to pin down. At first, it seems to have a clear agenda. The title comes from the opening line of Wallace Stevens’s almost Zen-like ars poetica, “The Snow Man” (“One must have a mind of winter/ To regard the frost and the boughs/ Of the pine-trees crusted with snow …”), and the epigraph is dedicatory: “For Wallace Stevens in March.” Then things get difficult. The “he” of the poem is not necessarily Stevens. The syntax is puzzling in the first stanza: it’s as if the poem does not want to divulge exactly who or what has been “silenced and sent outside/ as if the world was a child/ he wanted out of the room,” There’s no punctuation to guide us. It’s possible, if unlikely, that “he” in the third line is the sentence’s subject, and that “he wanted out of the room” means he wanted to get out of it. Elsewhere, the narrative clearly concerns a “he.” But here, there’s a snowball of nouns, compressing the logic of syntax to white and inescapable atmosphere.

The second stanza is arresting, with that strange image of the “mind” taking hold of the trees, an act both destructive and creative. The trees seem to be manipulated by a gigantic poetic intelligence. They might resemble letters on a blank page. And then the image of the banished child seems to hover again, when the winter sun, memorably “glowing like a pearl,” becomes the means of summoning that “small face on the pillow.” At the same time, this seems a very adult, even god-like child: an artist-child. Or perhaps it’s not a child at all, but someone withered by age? Does death, like poetry, demand a creative mental act?

No symbol in the poem, no metamorphosis, is water-tight or conclusive. The “one white quiet thing” suggests finality, but then, seemingly, life continues, the page of the book the protagonist holds containing an “icy scene” described as “pitiless and horizontal”. Is this death, a graveyard, or simply winter and the wintriness of the mind that gives itself up to seeing with such selfless clarity?

Another poem may be evoked here: “The Sun this March.” It marked a break-through for Stevens in 1930, his first poem after 6 unproductive years. Is creative stasis also part of the winter Kapos’s narrative evokes? There’s certainly a sense of liberation at the end, though accompanied by images of wounding, the “footprint gaping open in the snow” and the faintly terrifying idea of a “key-hole to the heart.” What happens to a snowman in spring, of course, is that it melts. A mind of winter in thaw, however welcomed that “holiday” might be, could dread the loss of grip.

There are plenty of seemingly non-symbolic objects in the poem: window, pillow, bed, blankets, a book, a page. It has a stoicism, too, which seems to follow Stevens’s aesthetic and moral injunction “not to think/ Of any misery in the sound of the wind,/ In the sound of a few leaves.” We seem to be in the presence of human experience as well as a symbolic death and recreation. March, the month before Eliot’s “cruellest month,” is the true crux of the year, but also, in this particular March, the turning-point for an individual who, I think, must go into the snows of death to find his spring.

A Mind of Winter

for Wallace Stevens in March

Silenced and sent outside
as if the world was a child
he wanted out of the room
the view from the window showed
only those cold thoughts
that tended to comply with white

a glaring region where his mind
took hold of trees and bent
their shoulders until they sighed
made them sag knee-deep
here and there like melted candles
stuck to a table in an empty house

and glowing like a pearl
placed a hard white sun low
in a windswept sky imagining his own
small face on a pillow in a new-made bed
then becoming one white quiet thing

draped thick blankets across his knees
so that the book he held
lightly in his hand was spread
open to a page where the icy
scene was set pitiless and horizontal

until his footprint gaping open in the snow
became a shape he no longer recognised
letting through a patch of green
and it was like a holiday
he’d been looking forward to for months
and a keyhole to the heart.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/20/poem-of-the-week-martha-kapos