Person of Snow

Tom Thomson couldn’t draw people for beans
but that doesn’t stop us loving those
holy glows, deep in the bottom galleries,
a conflagolion of Canadian

identities, as flimsy as it gets.
There’s just so much to say and then you’re dead.
“So what happened.”
“Oh, a guy had a seizure.”

“I’m goin’ to stupid school. The teacher came in
and played for us on the guitar and the mandolin.”
“I’ve moved up from Elmer’s and Lepage’s:
I’m on prescription glue.”

I hope it helped. I know my parents
did the best they could. Here we are, aren’t we.
Hear me out or not, it’s your birthday.
I’ve got a secret. You.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Person of Snow”?

“Person of Snow” (The title is a little joke, the “politically correct” way to say Snowman) came from the idea of human imperfection: some of us are born to a good life, and some of us are dreadfully handicapped by poverty or poor upbringing or neglect. I heard the quoted words on the bus, from people in the poorest part of Canada, Vancouver’s downtown east side. Even though Canada’s great painter, Tom Thomson, couldn’t paint people well, his landscapes are very beautiful; and even though people are having a very hard time in life, they can still chat with their friends, or make a joke with the bus driver. Don’t give up: don’t despair.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Person of Snow”?

I’ve been writing so long that the poetic techniques I use come to me without giving them much conscious thought at all. It’s like playing hockey: after you’ve played for a while, you don’t have to think about when to pass the puck: you just know, and you do it. You’ve made that knowledge, that technique, a part of you. In “Galactic Dynamics” I use internal rhyme in line 4: we’re, here, cheer. In “Person of Snow” I use the line endings to control the speed you read at: the second line ends in the middle of a phrase, so your eye hurries on to see what “those” will refer to in the next line; line six ends with the end of a sentence, very final, very emphatic. In “Bedford Social” I use end rhyme in lines three and four, as well as a five beats to each line, to give them a satisfying regularity and solidity. You can see this tactic in Robert Frost’s masterpiece, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” where he also uses another technique which I find very important to remember: use short words. The whole poem becomes much more powerful if you use as many short simple words as possible. A poem is a machine made of words, and its purpose is to carry emotion. Emotion is carried much better by short words than by long ones. Which sounds better: “The person who is addressing you has formed a deep emotional attachment to you,” or “I love you?”

This poem “Person of Snow” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 181 (Summer 2004): 25-25.

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