Virgin Snow

It happened, not as we had hoped,
underneath the stars, or along the banks
of a lake, or in an empty pasture,
but shut in amidst a virgin
snowstorm. It was among the coats and castoffs
on the bed in one of our parents’ bedrooms,
they having vacated the premises for some exotic island
just, we naively imagined, so we might have our tryst.
The sensation, if I had to describe it,
was like stepping over the edge
of a cliff into water and not quite knowing
how deep the fall or whether we’d surface again.
I wish I could say it was sublime,
but here is what I remember:
the smoke and liquor like a halo
over the room, the scratch
of his rough jeans on my thighs,
the parting, swift as an axe
splitting wood in half.
Downstairs the party in full
motion as if Bacchus himself
were hosting the celebration
fully aware,
as the ball dropped
to announce the beginning of the new year,
and sailed down the long tunnel of Eros,
of what temptation would lead to.
There were no bells,
no feelings of enlightenment.
Later when I was alone in my bed
I thought one thing: What if it was true,
that in the end he was irrelevant?
I waited all night but not once did I hear
the nightingale fill the sky with reason,
or glimpse the sun muscle through the sky
to announce the birth of the miraculous.

by Jill Bialosky

This is the final weekly poem before the Christmas vacation. Poems will return to your inbox in the week beginning 10th January. The Poetry Centre hopes that all our readers enjoy a very merry Christmas and an excellent start to 2011! Thank you very much for your support of the weekly poem this year.

Copyright © Jill Bialosky, 2010.

‘Virgin Snow’ is taken from The Skiers by Jill Bialosky (Arc International Poets, 2010), published by Arc Publications.

Notes courtesy of Arc:

Jill Bialosky was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She studied at Ohio University and received an M.A. in Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.  She is the author of the poetry collections The End of DesireSubterranean, a finalist for the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and Intruder, a finalist for the 2009 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals such as Paris ReviewAmerican Poetry ReviewKenyon Review and The Atlantic Monthly. She is author of the novels House Under Snow and The Life Room and co-edited, with Helen Schulman, the anthology Wanting a Child. Jill Bialosky is an editor at W. W. Norton & Company and lives in New York City. The Skiers is Jill Bialosky’s first collection to be published in the UK. You can find out more about Jill Bialosky here, and read more of her work here.

Since it was founded in 1969, Arc has adhered to its fundamental principles – to introduce the best of new talent to a UK readership, including voices from overseas that would otherwise remain unheard in this country, and to remain at the cutting edge of contemporary poetry. Arc also has a music imprint, Arc Music, for the publication of books about music and musicians. Find out more about Arc by visiting the publisher’s website, where there are discounts available on Arc books.

Big Band Theory

It all began with music,
with that much desire to be

in motion, waves of longing
with Nothing to pass through,

the pulsing you feel before
you hear it.  The darkness couldn’t

keep still, it began to sway,
then there were little flashes

of light, glints of brass
over the rumbling percussion,

the reeds began to weep and sing,
and suddenly the horns

tore bigger holes in the darkness—
we could finally see

where the music was coming from:
ordinary men in bowties and black

jackets.  But by then we had already
danced most of the night away.

by Sharon Bryan

Copyright © 2009 by BOA Editions. Reprinted by permission of BOA Editions.

This poem is taken from Sharp Stars by Sharon Bryan (2009).

Notes from BOA Editions:

Winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2009

As she’s shown throughout her career, Sharon Bryan is a rare breed of contemporary poet.  A practitioner of acrobatic language that probes matters philosophical and psychological, Bryan is also playful and humorous, and this mixture of attributes reveals itself in each of these tightly-knit, succulent poems. Concerned with the interplay of matter and spirit, Bryan’s poems in this collection also address, and sometimes blend, issues of biology, astronomy, and music.  The poems in Sharp Stars, from which “Big Band Theory” is taken, represent more than ten years of work. Of her last book, Flying Blind, published in 1996, Small Press wrote: “In Sharon Bryan’s most effective poems, word play is a matter of life and death… Bryan won’t let any ordinary phrase off the hook as she dangles it, circling in brilliant focus.” Indeed, in Sharp Stars we find her unraveling common phrases or sayings in the all-too-human desire for transcendence, a transcendence Sharon Bryan accomplishes with her own blend of levity and gravitas, always mindful of the complicated, vexing dynamic of body and soul. You can learn more about Sharon Bryan by listening to an interview here.

BOA Editions, Ltd., a not-for-profit publisher of poetry and other literary works, fosters readership and appreciation of contemporary literature.  By identifying, cultivating, and publishing both new and established poets and selecting authors of unique literary talent, BOA brings high quality literature to the public.  Support for this effort comes from the sale of its publications, grant funding, and private donations.  Visit the BOA Editions website to find out more.


The small salon is flanked by shelves and cupboards
and so awash with the overpowering reek
of toiletries that it seems smaller still.
Awater – I must admit I’m quite relieved
to see him, he’d almost given me the slip –
is sitting at a round ceramic sink
wrapped tightly in a cloak of starched white linen.
The barber does his job and I pretend
to be the next in line and take a seat.
I’ve never seen Awater closer by
than in this mirror; never has he appeared
so absolutely inaccessible.
Between the bottles, glittering and splintered,
he rises in the mirror like an iceberg
the scissors’ shining bows go gliding past.
But spring comes soon, and with the mist still hanging
from a sudden passing shower, the barber’s comb
now ploughs a furrow in his tousled hair.
Awater pays and leaves the barbershop.
I follow him without a second thought.
Chance takes a short cut to its destination.
Was it meant to be – Awater’s ending up
in the bar I used to visit with my brother?
It was: he’s even occupied our corner.
I sit down somewhere else. It’s hardly full.
The barman knows me. He knows the way I feel.
He wipes my table for a second time
and dawdles with the white cloth in his hand.
‘The times,’ he mumbles finally, ‘have changed.’

by Martinus Nijhoff

Copyright © Martinus Nijhoff; translation © David Colmer, 2010.

This poem is taken from Awater, translated by David Colmer, edited by Thomas Möhlmann, and published by Anvil Press.

Notes courtesy of Peter Jay at Anvil Press:

This is a bit of a teaser, or a trailer. It’s an extract from the middle of Nijhoff’s 300-line poem with the mysterious title, which is also the name of the mystery character in the poem. It’s not quite a detective story as there are no unexplained deaths – just unexplained lives! The story is that Awater goes to work, leaves it, and goes to the railway station via the barber’s, followed by the narrator who has decided to shadow him. Hardly material for great poetry, you might think, but it’s regarded as the classic Dutch poem of the 20th century.

The poem is formally a little more elaborate in Dutch than in the only possible English equivalent, David Colmer’s well-paced blank verse. How can a narrative poem with a plain story like this be so rich both in poetry and ideas? Simply described events become luminously riddling and mysterious: what is going on? why? what does it all mean? or are these the wrong questions?

For partial answers, you must read Wiljan van den Akker’s essay in Anvil’s new edition of the poem, edited by Thomas Möhlmann. The Dutch text is followed by three different English translations and several contributions (including from the late poet: Nijhoff lived from 1894 to 1953) which cast light on them, without ever quite solving its mysteries.

Anvil Press Poetry was founded in 1968 and publishes English-language poetry and poetry in translation, both classic and modern. You can read more about Anvil here.

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