In the News

A Plague of Snow

Photo by Henri ColePhoto by Henri Cole
The New Yorker
February 18, 2015
By Henri Cole

It’s snowing again in Boston. Snow on snow on snow. More than seven feet in the past month, with another foot expected. We’re closing in on a hundred inches. A plague of snow, fluffy and dry before it hardens and grips the trees, the walls, and the cars parked haphazardly everywhere. When I walk to the little market a few blocks away, it feels like a test of endurance. I walk down the middle of the road in my bulky clothing and boots, like I’m in Boris Pasternak’s epic drama-romance “Doctor Zhivago,” though I am going to buy the newspaper and a quart of milk rather than seek my lover. The polar vortex has not shut down the small corner grocery, because the owner lives upstairs and doesn’t need to ride the T, our tired transit system (the oldest in the country), or drive on the unplowed roads. Normally, Boston is ready for big winter storms, with salt and trucks (snow melters, Bobcats, front-end loaders, backhoes, dump trucks, and plows) waiting, but we were not expecting the snowiest month in the city’s history. Is February, the shortest month, ever going to end? The mayor is talking of dumping the snow into the harbor, as a last resort, despite protests that the salt and chemicals scooped up with it will pollute the ocean water. For about twenty cents an hour, state-prison inmates are helping to clear the train rails. “It’s like a war and we’re taking the city back, station by station,” someone on the news reported dramatically.  

In the distance, I can hear a snowblower, a shovel scraping the pavement, a lost dog barking somewhere beneath the white blanket cover. When, at last, a plow goes by, it leaves a smooth surface, but creates a bigger snowdrift in front of the invisible, buried cars, blocking them in even more. A friend removed snow from her roof and, with no place else to put it, shovelled it into her bathtub. “But snow does not melt in the bathtub unless you turn on the hot shower,” she complained. Housebound, I grow compulsive, repeating questions to myself: Will school be closed? Will the roof come down? Was that crack in the ceiling there yesterday? Will we lose electricity? Will the railway plow clear the tracks, or will I be stranded, like other riders? Is this plague of snow our punishment for the Patriots’ underinflated footballs? Will the reading by Jamaica Kincaid—whose writing is a torrent of color (the opposite of white)—at the public library in my neighborhood be cancelled? Will the homeless couple sleeping in the vestibule of my building get anything to eat? Should I again shovel the narrow path (wide enough for only a goat) to the front door of my apartment house? How long before life will return to normal? Why is Earth, our home, so angry at us?

Here, up on the fifth floor, where I live in three rooms, I look out at the arctic snowscape without emotion. I cannot feel the terrible temperatures, which are fifteen degrees below normal, but I can hear the big gusts blowing the snow off nearby rooftops into horizontal clouds of ice dust. This morning, standing in the dark at the stove, waiting for the kettle to whistle, I thought of Emily Dickinson’s famous poem about the deadening of feelings after a trauma. “This is the Hour of Lead—” she says, describing the hour with a metaphor of stasis, in which everything is frozen around her. She imagines that what she feels is like what a freezing person experiences, recollecting the snow: “First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go.” But what does a freezing person really feel? When I am cold, my teeth chatter and my muscles shiver. The hairs rise up on my flesh, forming goose bumps. (Why do I have the same pimples when I experience awe, admiration, and sexual arousal?) I wish I had a thick coat, like a plump lamb in one of William Blake’s poems or paintings. The thermostat in my brain is stimulated, telling me that my body must react and do something soon to keep my vital organs warm.

On my desk, there’s a picture of my father at the South Pole, where he was stationed when he was in the Air Force. He looks so happy with his sled dogs and debonair mustache. There doesn’t seem to be any risk of frostbite, in which the lack of warm blood leads to skin tissue freezing and rupturing. He isn’t even wearing a hat! Instead there is pleasure on his face, as if he knows that the snow is good for Earth, like insulation keeping a loving body warm. Soon the sky will be sunny and blue again. The icicles and the snow will fall from the cornices of my building and smash onto the street below, where my kind neighbor has put a yellow tape to block the sidewalk. I try to remember that white is the color of renewal and the possibility of starting again.

Henri Cole’s new book of poetry, “Nothing to Declare,” will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux next month. He is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

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