Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie




As much as he had enjoyed the notion spending the whole day inside, Cross knew by that afternoon that he couldn’t let the snowstorm pass without going out into it. The next day would dawn beautifully, a world of white gleaming in sunlight, and then would almost instantly turn into an urban gray slush that clutched at ankles like the icy grip of the damned.  Besides, now that he was ensconced in semi-suburban Riverdale, the snowy city would be lovelier than usual, so out he went. 

Walking down the path, Cross nearly ran smack into a pine bough that usually wasn’t there; it dipped down under the snow’s weight, a curtain of dark green and white that he ducked under with the momentary sensation of one of the winter forests of his childhood. More than a foot of snow had fallen, and was still coming down in big wet flakes, their celebrated individuality obliterated the moment they came into contact with the world. Cross trudged up to the parkway, toward the lattice of frosted branches, white on black, that covered the horizon, broken here and there by one of the 1950s era apartment towers that seemed so incongruous amidst the small houses and large stone mansions that dotted the neighborhood. 

Cross was still slightly stunned that Brooklyn had given way so easily to the Bronx, but more and more he gave himself over to flux, change itself the only change anyone could believe in. Even as the future assumed a pleasing shape (much like the Devil, who also lurked, per the cliché, in all the details of that future), Cross felt content to live day by day. He was, after all, taking at least one day back for every day that he had lost over the course of twenty months.

(He had almost thought stolen before mentally crossing it out and thinking lost, for he had been complicit in those days, those moments, all trailing behind like a wake now). By May he would have all of them back.

He stopped and stepped aside, out of his thoughts and into the snowbank, to let a woman on skis pass; she was smiling, out of breath. Beyond her a man pushed a snowplow, and another appeared suddenly with a shovel over his shoulder. Cross silently thanked them for making his walk possible; his snow boots had been one of the casualties of the move back uptown. As the woman passed, her legs and arms scissoring, Cross remembered Winter Camp, and his utter inability to cross-country ski. His skiing was so maladroit that soon he was far, far behind the rest of the campers. He vividly remembered looking up from his shuffling, scuffling labors and being alone on the trail, and feeling simultaneously frustrated with his complete lack of athletic ability and secretly pleased at the solitude it suddenly afforded, his snowsuit suddenly as bulky as an spacesuit, the winter white flecked with black like a negative of the starry void. 

It was cold. Cross walked down to the Bell Tower, crossing over the Parkway and making his way down Riverdale Drive. He thought for a moment of walking to Ewan Park and watching what would doubtless be a whole fleet of sleds careening down the park’s steep slope, but knew he would only get as far as Salvatore’s and a cup of hot chocolate. 

In the drifting snow, the Bell Tower, its sides inscribed with the names of war dead forgotten along with those who mourned them, stood like a lovely old ruin of some kind. It stood on a traffic island and spent its hours, day and night, as a sort of stark Maypole for traffic; Cross’ bus swung by it daily. It was a landmark, but the sort of landmark that everyone used for navigation. Cross doubted many every really saw it, except at the holidays when a forlorn Christmas tree and neon menorah stood at the foot of it. It put Cross in mind of the Beaumont Tower on the campus of Michigan State. 

Cross stood still for a moment, letting the snow alight. So much of winter was tied up in childhood now—snow, he had come to realize, represented the lost world of his childhood and his parents, and beyond that his grandparents, great-grandparents, people for whom the Mojave Desert would have been as exotic as the Sahara. It represented not only Michigan but New York, the upstate world of Syracuse and Port Byron where distant relatives perhaps still lived. And enough snow to cover them all, thought Cross to himself.

Outside of Salvatore’s, a young boy, bundled but not too bundled, was methodically packing a snowball in his fists; Cross felt his own palms tingle at the memory of doing the same, and he remembered, too, Bill Cosby’s snowball routine on Revenge, an album that Cross had listened to on many a snow day as a child, to the point where he could likely still recite the whole routine himself. As Cross made his way across Riverdale Avenue, he half hoped his hat would provide a target, but the boy, having shaped the snowball to his apparent satisfaction, suddenly let it crumble, dropping it to the salted sidewalk. And my mother had thrown the snowball away… 

Cross’ father had been one of the counselors that year at Winter Camp. Each counselor was assigned a half dozen campers and a cabin, and the fact that Cross had escaped being assigned to his father’s cabin was almost proof of a higher power. Later, he discovered that all the boys in his father’s cabin thought his dad was great: he had led them on a raid of the cafeteria after hours to steal extra rice crispy treats, and told them endless ghost stories after lights out. Cross had great difficulty reconciling this fun character with his irritable and irritated father and wondered if not getting assigned to that cabin had been such a blessing after all. 

As Cross settled into the warmth of Salvatore’s, the red-checked tablecloths somehow adding to that warmth, he also remembered his father putting him on a child’s snowmobile (it seems they had such things in 1970s Michigan) at the age of six, and how it had shot off across an icy parking lot the moment the ignition had been turned. He remembered his father laughing as he cried, and why not? No harm done. But after that he had ridden solely on the back when his parents had taken their snowmobiles out, their roar cutting though those winter landscapes, turning them into extraordinarily loud silent movies. He remembered, too, walking out on the ice on Blue Lake, and his foot going through an iced over ice fishing hole, his leg plunging into the chilled black water all the way up to his thigh, and his father’s arms under his own, pulling him out. What if the ice around that hole had suddenly cracked, Cross thought, looking out the window as the snowplow came by, pushing all this winter wonderland ahead of it like so much trash.

It occurred to Cross that living in seasons again, these last few years, had strangely heightened that feeling of living in the moment: the season had become the place to locate that moment in. Summer moments, winter moments, autumn moments. The years in the desert now felt weirdly outside of time, though the subtle seasons there, too, affixed the days. Cross knew it was raining in Vegas even as the snow was falling over New York, and he knew the smell of the desert after it rained, that pleasurable mixture of sage and mustiness, held fast any number of memories. He suddenly saw his father’s face as he stood in the driveway of the ranch, the setting sun making him squint. 

Cross saw, too, that those memories were crowded with many faces. Winter, however, and winter dreams, were solitudes, even when others were there—amidst the snow, you felt as if you were the only person in the world. It focused the mind somehow, the snowy landscape, and not because of that trope about how the freshly fallen snow was so clean, how it had somehow cleansed the world—the dirty old world was right there underneath it, waiting for the sun—but because it had transformed the world into an intimation of silence. Even the shovelers and snowblowers and snowplows perhaps sensed this, and their resentment at having to clear the world had less to do with toil and more to do with a fear of that silence. And it wasn’t that such silence was some intimation of death, of oblivion (though it could be, and perhaps was feared to be) but of eternity: the silence of being outside of time, of perpetual waiting for something that had already happened. 

Which actually, come to think of it, was a pretty good definition of death. Life, however, was hot chocolate. Cross took a sip, and then another, sitting alone at a table by the window, watching the snow drift down as the sky darkened.


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    Speaking Picture - The Waste Book - WINTERREISE

Reader Comments (2)

I love the quiet of the snow. It is one of a very few things that I am going to miss about winter.

Beautifully written, as always.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNycole

I do like how winter sometimes makes the world slow down. Since winter does eventually cede to spring, that'd make it more a la petite mort, yes?

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElaine

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