The ten poems shortlisted for the competition all picked up the given subject of snow and sculpted it into shape. Switzerland, home of the competition and, presumably, of the shortlisted poets, might have inspired a clutch of poems on the exhilaration of skiing, of glaciers, of the lovely woods dark and deep, the grandeur of the Alps. But that proved happily not to be the case.
Snow piled into the poems as something of a threat, beyond the windscreen. It entered the kitchen and melted to domesticity. It became human, flaky like us. Generation snowflake quickly led to trigger warnings. It swirled, like Marilyn in her white dress, in a warm updraft.
What I liked about the winning poem “Tom Thomson, First Snow, 1915” was the distance the snow crossed in travelling towards the reader, a distance in time as well as space. The poem’s voice stood back and observed the long fall a century ago. The first snow, so to speak, was late in coming. The name in the title intrigued, suggesting an autobiographical connection but rebuffing it at the same time: unless the poet is well into his or her second century!
First snow is memorable, of course, entrancingly so, and enjambment in this winning poem follows the declensions, the decline of memory from line to line:
Through the falling flakes,
I am certain I can see
the future, the bone birches
like brides waiting for promises,
and the rise of tomorrow
in the far hills;
Those “bone birches”, with their touch of Plath, seem to tremble at the prospect of tomorrow. One can see the resemblance between bridal gowns, laden down birches and dejection: brides left standing at the altar of the war. The phrasing and lineation are assured, suggesting more than stating, but not auguring well for the war in full slaughter in 1915 or for the century that is to follow or that has followed. The poem plays tricks with time and perspective: is it looking back “at the world and time” or looking forward “at the rise of tomorrow / in the far hills”?
It is this ominous note, the old trope of snow falling “on all the living and the dead,” as the Irish writer James Joyce put it in the same year, 1915, which gives the poem its shiver. That shiver comes beautifully, coldly, in the last verse:
that the future is waiting
to take my breath away,
beyond the skeletal stand.
The apparent sweep of this verse disguises its suggestiveness. The child, if it is a child, is too young to enlist or be conscripted: one import of “beyond the skeletal stand”. With hindsight, we know the body count, the number of breaths taken away in the course of the Great War. This closing verse, and the poem’s intriguing title and address, play with the knowledge of hindsight. The final word “stand” implies a military position, as well as a copse of trees, all the while undercut by the adjective “skeletal”.
“Tom Thomson, First Snow, 1915” is a wonderfully intriguing poem. It has been a pleasure to encounter it and all the poems shortlisted for this competition.