Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.
“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.
Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.
Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.
Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.
Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.
Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.
Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.
Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”
Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.
Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”
Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.
Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.
Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.
Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.
Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”
Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”
Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.
Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.
Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.
Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.
Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).
Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”
Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”
Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.
Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.
Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”
Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”
Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”
Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”
Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”
Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”
Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”
Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.
Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”
Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”
Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.
Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.
Day 37: Wednesday April 12
“The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.
Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.
Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”
Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”
Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1
Snow is story. Snow can be an interruption and annoyance, but it is difficult to not appreciate a child’s awe for the white flakes. Snow clogs and closes roads, but it also turns lonely hills into slopes for sledding. Snow is the possibility of a new landscape, if only until for an hour, a day, or a week.
I was born during an Ash Wednesday snowstorm. My father rushed my mother to Morristown Memorial Hospital while white cloaked the streets. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I scoped side roads for hills and banks. The best routes had speed and a smooth finish, and though I would drift to a stop, I would stare into the sky, and not care that I was cold. I listened for school closings on a Sansui, my face lit by the dial. Now I refresh the National Weather Service website as watches become warnings, and still pine for storms.
That white world has influenced my writing: my novella, This Darksome Burn, begins during an Oregon storm, and one of my poems, “The Mailman,” laments undelivered mail. Snow has also become a refrain in my reading. Snow fractures storylines and complicates characters. Snow forces writers to capture atmosphere and mood, and to uniquely describe a common event. Although we may experience many snowstorms in our lifetimes, each fall must be prepared for, dealt with, and, possibly, appreciated. I’ve noticed that writers often raise their descriptive bar when representing this winter world. What follows is a list of snow in poetry, fiction, and film. The usual suspects are mentioned, but my focus is on lesser-known gems. There’s enough reading and watching to keep you busy during the next polar vortex, blizzard, or even onion snow.
I. Snow in Poetry
“Antarctica” by James Hoch (2007)
Friends kneel on the dirt floor of a baseball dugout. They pop nitrous canisters “into the communion shapes / of our mouths, slipped inside where / everything seemed to be falling snow.” The poem continues with that steel-like chill, as some boys drift toward further abuse, and even death. Hoch never glorifies drug use, but, like the blur of side-falling snow, he muddies the space between regret and nostalgia. The grown narrator sees kids “running in the heat of a taillight / swirling behind them,” and recalls his own youth, when he and his friends “wanted only to quiet our bodies, their / unnatural hum, a vague pull inward, / some thin furrows gliding over the snow.” Hoch’s poem appeared in an issue of Painted Bride Quarterly, but I prefer the version that was included in his second book, Miscreants.
“A Winter’s Tale” by D.H. Lawrence (1916)
Snow and love are commonly intertwined, but Lawrence begins this poem in the “grey” past, where the woman’s footsteps document her existence. She is gone: “I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf / obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky; / but she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half / sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.” Yesterday, she had rushed to meet the narrator for their “inevitable farewell; / the hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow– / why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?” No warmth in this storm.
“Invocation” by Denise Levertov (1969)
In 1994, Levertov wrote “Swan in Falling Snow,” based on the photography of her friend, Mary Randlett. Although the title sounds pleasant, the poem is not: the swan is nearly dead, a “barrel-sized, heart-shaped snowball.” Levertov uses commas as knives: “splayed feet, balanced, / weary, immobile.” Yet Levertov had long been interested in snow’s ability to turn a narrative. “Invocation” is a sparer piece, resembling patches of dirt on a snowed page. The collective narrator is about to leave home, and each line in the first stanza is its own sentence, building the anticipation. Here, snow is not worried over, but wished for: “Deep snow shall block all entrances / and oppress the roof and darken / the windows.” Only snow can shutter a home and prevent entry. And that is fine, because the narrator hopes Lares will “guard” the “profound dreams” between the walls, so “that it return to us when we return.” It also contains my most favorite line in all of poetry: “The house yawns like a bear.”
“Early October Snow” by Robert Haight (2013)
A nor’easter slammed New Jersey the day before Halloween, 2011. Trees snapped power lines as some counties saw nearly 20 inches of accumulation. Haight’s poem brought me back to that moment: “this morning we wake to pale muslin / stretched across the grass.” The narrator knows the snow will not stay, but the blanched landscape still fascinates him. I love a poem that isn’t supposed to happen. Snow should wait its turn, but Haight makes this early fall so believable, from the pumpkins that look like “planets / shrouded by clouds” to “leaves, still soldered to their branches / by a frozen drop of dew, splash / apple and pear paint along the roadsides.”
“Ash-boughs” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1885)
Hopkins’s final sonnet, “To R.B.,” is a lament about the narrator’s inability to experience “the fine delight that fathers thought:” inspiration to write poetry. “R.B.” is Robert Bridges, poet laureate of England, but more importantly, Hopkins’s friend and posthumous publisher. The pair met at Oxford, and agnostic Bridges was the perfect contrast to Hopkins, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit priest. Bridges named this fragment “Ash-boughs” when he published Hopkins’s Collected Poems in 1918. A curtal sonnet, one of Hopkins’s idiosyncratic 12 line variations of the form, the poem begins with a narrator’s wonder at “a milk to the mind:” the branches of ash trees. He enjoys their shapes, reach, and color: “ May / mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray / of greenery.” The tree reaches through the memory of snow to the promise of spring and light.
Hopkins had always connected snow and ash trees, and used their intersection to present his central poetic theory, inscape. Hopkins once explained to Bridges that “no doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” His theory of inscape is equally unusual: “the essential and only lasting thing…species or individually-distinctive beauty of style.” The theory became the core paradox of Hopkins’s poetry and life, which Bridges observed as “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism,” and what W.H. Gardner calls the “tension between the inborn creative personality of the artist and the acquired religious character of the Jesuit priest.”
That one of our most inventive poets synthesized his poetic and personal theories using snow brings me joy. From his notebook, in February and April, 1873: “In the snow flat-topped hillocks and shoulders outline with wavy edges, ridge below ridge, very like the grain of wood in line and in projection like relief maps…All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods and broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom…[in April] the ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first. I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”
A great list of snow poems appears in the essay “Turning Up the Gravity” by Floyd Skloot. After a bad storm, Skloot heads inside and envelopes himself in winter verse: “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Snowflakes” by Howard Nemerov, “Snow Light” by May Sarton, “SNO” by e.e. cummings, “The Snow on Saddle Mountain” by Gary Snyder, “Snow” by Charles Wright, “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” by Robert Bly, “Snow” by Philip Levine, “Winter Poem” by Frederick Morgan, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, and “Desert Places” by Robert Frost: “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express.” I would also add “Snow” by Mary Ruefle, “A Winter Without Snow” by J.D. McClatchey, “[Like brooms of steel]” by Emily Dickinson, “February Snow” by Francisco Aragón, “The Snow-Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letter from the Ice Field, December” by Sara Eliza Johnson, and, of course, “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, which ends: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
II. Snow in Fiction
The Pedersen Kid by William Gass (1961)
Gass wrote his novella “to entertain a toothache;” I first read it while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist. Within his plans for the story’s draft, he explains his goal to “present evil as a visitation –sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable,” bringing to life a line spoken in the text: “nobody’s ever ready for snow.” Gass’s cast is full of effective caricatures: drunken Pa, confused Ma, conniving farm-hand Big Hans, and young Jorge, the first person narrator. Snow appears in the second sentence: in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard, Big Hans discovers a child, the Pedersen kid. The child is resuscitated but delirious, and the family attempts to discover why he is there. Armed with shotguns, sandwiches, and coffee, the men of the home cross snow to hunt the man with mysterious “yellow gloves:” assumedly, someone who has killed the rest of the Pedersen family.
In a story that both parodies and praises the adventure genre, the men experience horse troubles and shudder from cold. Pa loses his whiskey bottle in the snow, and Gass spends several pages on Pa’s obsessive search, leading to Jorge’s conclusion: “It was frightening — the endless white space.” The horse ultimately shatters the bottle, and the “brown stain spread,” the “snow bubbling and sagging.” Big Hans laughs, and Jorge thought they “could melt and drink the snow.” Jorge hates Big Hans; would hate him “forever — as long as there was snow.” A Beckett-style scene unfolds. Snow and storm create a maniacal world that is equal parts caricature and deadly real. The men reach the Pedersen barn, and Jorge hears gunshots. In the novella’s final psychotropic pages, Jorge feels reborn in the abandoned Pedersen home, though the killer might near: “More and more, while we’d been coming, I’d been slipping out of myself, pushed out by the cold maybe.” His thoughts drift toward “a movie where the months had blown from the calendar like leaves. Girls in red peek-a-book BVDs were skiing out of sight.” He sees his motionless father being buried under new snowfall, and realizes there is nothing he can do until spring: “There was no need for me to grieve…The snow would keep me.” He accepts that the “winter time had finally got them all.”
“Wickedness” by Ron Hansen (1988)
From the introduction to Ted Kooser’s book of poems, The Blizzard Voices: “[these poems were] snagged…from actual reminiscences, recorded in old age, of people who survived the most talked about storm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard because of the many children and their teachers who were trapped in rural schools on the bitterly cold days of January 12 and 13.” Hansen’s fictional dramatization of the blizzard is frightening. “Weather in Nebraska could be the wickedest thing she ever saw:” wicked suggests snowfall as sentient villain. The storm took most by surprise: “Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog.”
Animals are thrown about: “Cats died, dogs died, pigeons died.” Humans appear to lose their minds. “Ainslie Classen” (Hansen’s usage of proper names lends a dated census-like feel to the narrative) “work[ed] his hands into the pigs’ hot wastes, and smeared some onto his skin.” Mathias Aachen’s house is in disarray: “When a jar of apricots burst open that night and the iced orange syrup did not ooze out” the father of the house promises that “every one of us will be dying of cold before morning.” Aachen doesn’t wait for the storm: “he tilted hot candle wax into his right ear and then his left, until he could only hear his body drumming blood. And then Aachen got his Navy Colt and kissed his wife and killed her. And then walked under the green tent cloth and killed his seven children, stopping twice to capture a scuttling boy and stopping once more to reload.”
The wicked storm kills “a Harrington woman,” “an Omaha cigar maker,” “a cattle inspector,” “a Chicago boy,” “a forty year-old wife,” and many more. This is certainly no ordinary storm based on volume alone, but Hansen redoubles the almost mythical convention of snow through description: “Everything she knew was no longer there. She was in a book without descriptions. She could put her hand out and her hand would disappear.” Hansen makes snow a legend.
“Time and Again” by Breece Pancake (1977)
Although she deemed the story “relatively weak” and having a “sort of comic book Gothicism” in her 1983 review, Joyce Carol Oates anthologized Pancake’s morbid story in American Gothic Tales. I assume her appreciation increased with subsequent readings. I was sold on my first reading. Pancake’s story begins indoors: “Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died.” The sentences lean forward; they are blinks of an eye, individual shots, appended with heavy periods.
The narrator’s son has been gone for years. This lonely man keeps hogs, “old hogs. Not good for anything,” but makes his money driving the plow for Mr. Weeks. Besides a loud clue — “the lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat” — the narrator first seems more cantankerous than murderous: “The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead.” He soon picks up a hitchhiker, “a polite boy,” who reminds the narrator of his son. The talk reaches the man’s hogs, and he says they die hard, much harder than men in war. Death remains the topic of discussion: they talk of a serial killer who prays on local hitchhikers. The narrator then talks of snapping the necks of German soldiers in a French farmhouse during a World War II snowstorm. “People die so easy,” he thinks; unspoken words, but heard by the reader. He grips the lug wrench, and asks the boy to look under the seat for his flashlight. But the killing strike never comes. He spares the boy, and drives up the mountain. He tries to think about all the men he killed in France, but can’t think past that night in the storm. He returns home, and Pancake hints at what the narrator usually feeds the hogs. This time, they are unhappy.
“How to Talk to a Hunter” (pdf) by Pam Houston (1990)
Besides “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace, I haven’t found better usage of second person narration. The unnamed main character has fallen for the hunter, who “won’t play back his messages while [she is] in the room.” She is attracted to him, but also to the comfort of a warm body in bed during the winter. She imagines that it will snow for “thirteen straight days,” and that they will spend the hours together.
She soon learns that those unchecked messages are from another woman. Houston’s second person narrator outlines a hypothetical storyline: the other woman will bridge the distance from Montana and bring heavy snow with her. Closed highways will snowbound them, and the main character will realize that this man is like all the others: he is his needs and wants, and nothing more. Although not a drop of this storm actually falls, Houston absolutely convinces the reader that this character can worry herself frozen. In fact, by the end of the story there is little discernment between past, present, and possibility, except the realization that the “nights are getting shorter now,” but no less painful.
“A Change of Season” by James Bond (1984)
Bond’s story was anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he also published fiction in Willow Springs (“Whiskey Sunday Refusal” and “Fools Fall”), but has disappeared from the literary radar. This is both surprising and not. The story torques its authentic tension through a rotating first person narration, yet it feels somewhat provincial on a first read. Two logging families, the Yanceys and Davazs, are in the midst of a competition for timber and pride. Both think the other clan is unfit for this work, but both agree “if a man can last the winter here he’s got a chance; if he can beat the winter here, he’s somebody.” Buck Davaz claims the Yanceys are “scared of snow:” the second they see fall, they “grab up everything and run, axes, tractors, trucks, saws, and what they can’t carry they throw ahead of them.” Randall Yancey, one of the sons, says Buck “didn’t know winter.”
But Buck needs Bill Yancey’s help. His Snowcat is stuck up on the mountain, and he’s got forty to sixty thousand feet of timber that he’s willing to “pay a pretty penny for help hauling.” Yancey hates scaling the mountain during a fall, but money talks, so he agrees to help. Buck needs the help but revels in Bill’s poor driving in the snow. They load and chain the Snowcat to a truck, but Bill’s towing truck slides before getting stuck. The narrative shifts perspective but never relents, as each man criticizes the other, before Buck ultimately gets his own ride stuck. Angry and frustrated, Buck smashes the windshield with a maul, and strides toward the Yanceys, wielding an axe in his other hand. Each time I read this story, I expect the worst possible ending, but Buck only walks past them, echoing a maxim he speaks earlier in the story: “Knowing when to stop fighting, that’s a side of strength most never learn.”
“The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (as well as his non-fiction, Winter: Notes from Montana), the haunting conclusion of “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy, the “Snow” chapter in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey; Snow by Orhan Pamuk, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff, and, of course, “The Dead” by James Joyce (“And he [wrote the story] when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” — Mary Gordon).
III. Snow in Film
A horror movie about linguistics, radio stations, and snow? It exists, and begins with a riddle that includes Norman Mailer, the JFK assassination, and how “physical details spasm for a moment” after a tragic event. Shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is unhappy with his new assignment in a small Ontario town: “These late winters I feel like I’m living in the basement of the world.” On his way to work on Valentine’s Day morning, Mazzy encounters a distraught woman who smacks against his window, says the word “blood,” and then disappears into the snow. And that fall is only beginning: the storm is about to last all day. Local news reports of a hostage situation and gunfire flame into a zombie attack. Their virus is language. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, calls them “conversationalists.” Cult followers of the film (and its novel basis, by Tony Burgess) point to an essay by William S. Burroughs, “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars:” “the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.”
This virus begins as a repetition of a word, like a broken record. The album is love: this is Valentine’s Day, so those infected repeat terms of endearment. The repetition devolves into fracture, and words break down. During the final stage, the medium swallows the message: “you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Soon the entire town of Pontypool is placed under quarantine. Mazzy steps outside into the blizzard, but the snow pushes inside, just as the infected pound against doors and windows. Mazzy shifts from sarcastic to serious as he recounts obituaries for those killed and who kill each other, shown in a snow-white and black interlude that recalls Wisconsin Death Trip. Soon the infected smash their way into the studio, and the snow follows, blown like wavering lines of stereo sound.
The Shining (1980)
Disciples of Stanley Kubrick have been mining this film long before Room 237 (2013) made basement theories mainstream, but its depiction of snow also deserves mention. My first viewing was a version recorded from WPIX in the late 1980’s. There was no audio during the opening sequence (the Torrance family driving to the interview at the Overlook Hotel, with scrolling, aqua-colored credits breaking beautiful scenery), but the sound kicked-in like a shock. The film is suffused with snow. When Jack (Jack Nicholson) is being interviewed for the caretaker position, the window behind the manager beams light, as if the sun is burning off snow. The manager explains that the hotel closes until May, since the cost to plow the collected 20 feet of winter snow is prohibitive. A former schoolteacher and hopeful novelist, he longs for the isolation afforded by this job. He lives in Boulder, but is from Vermont, a place of snow, and claims his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), will love the change. He also claims that his wife will be entertained, not frightened, by the manager’s revelation that a former caretaker murdered his family before committing suicide. The eccentricities of the Torrance family are nothing compared to Danny’s psychic powers.
Jack gets the job, and the snowfall doesn’t disappoint. Phone lines are down during a storm early in the film, so Wendy contacts the forest service on a radio. The ranger says it is one of the worst storms they’ve had in years. A shot of the heavy fall precedes Danny’s wandering into the forbidden room 237. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) shares Danny’s psychic powers, and realizes that Jack’s eccentricities have descended into violence. Dick flies from Miami to Colorado, and then drives along a highway littered with overturned trucks and spun-out cars, a white graveyard. He is on the way to the hotel, but his well-intentioned help is not enough.
During the climactic scenes, Wendy has locked herself and Danny in the bedroom to hide from Jack’s wrath. She is only able to open the window halfway. She lifts Danny through, and he slides down a gentle hill of snow to the ground. Wendy can’t fit, so, knife in hand, she waits for Jack to reach her. He axes through one panel of the door, but stops when he hears Dick’s Snowcat nearing the hotel.
The film’s infamous final sequence occurs in the hedge maze, where Danny knows snow holds the key to his survival. The curious photograph at the film’s conclusion hints that, like snow, evil always returns.
Snow’s power as a visual backdrop makes it ubiquitous in film, but here are some particularly notable whiteouts: The Ice Storm (1997), based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody; Ang Lee’s representation is beautiful, but Moody’s prose is tough to top: “The ice had built up on every surface, on roofs and shrubs and avenues and cars and waterways. It formed a glittering and immense cocoon on tree limbs and power lines, a cocoon of impossible mass. The sound of tree limbs giving out under this weight was like the crackling of gunfire. Mike Williams, who was wandering around in the earliest part of dawn, heard these explosions in the stillness and laughed giddily at them. He was up really late. The threat of heavy weather impelled him out into the elements. To watch.”); Fargo (1996), where snow is present in the first and climactic scenes, and almost everywhere in-between; The Thing (1982), Antarctica is the perfect place to have a showdown with shape-shifting aliens; The Virgin Spring (1960), where a soft snowfall pierces the viewer’s already wounded heart; Black Christmas (1974), watch it for Keir Dullea’s maniacal destruction of a piano, Olivia Hussey’s authentic screams, and Margot Kidder’s dirty-mouthed sarcasm, but snow completes this precedent for John Carpenter’s Halloween; Road to Perdition (2002), Sam Mendes’s dramatization of a former mafia hitman’s (Tom Hanks) revenge was renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall’s final film, and is marked by rain and snow; A Simple Plan (1998), an unusual film in Sam Raimi’s catalog, where friends discover a small plane that had crashed into a snowy forest, with 4 million dollars in tow; Antichrist (2009), the appeal of snow brings a child to an open window, leading to tragedy in the film’s opening minutes; Snow Angels (2007), based on the Stewart O’Nan novel, is an incredibly moving drama about a fractured family that cannot escape pain, and a girl’s wayward walk in snow; Frosty the Snowman (1969), because cinematic snow does not always need to equal sadness.
Image Credit: Wikipedia