Winter Litany (from Verse Daily)
Kraków, March, 2004
I stand on Wawel Hill
in early March and morning snow
falls in flocks
tiny paper cranes
descending blowing dissolving
one into another
on the cobblestone walk
an avalanche of light
I believe this must be
what death is
shining and melting, shining and flying
Standing on Wawel Hill, where Polish kings were crowned and laid to rest, the speaker watches snow fall and muses on death. She’s at the heart of the ancestral, but she does not pick an image from our rituals marking death (i.e. “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”). Those rituals may seem tired and useless upon close inspection, but they dictate the world we live in and who we are to unprecedented degrees. The heart of the ancestral is the heart of the conventional.
Rather, she picks a natural, contingent occurrence to think through. It’s snowing in early March; for some of us, that’s spring. Nothing need fall, nor resemble flocks of paper cranes that swoop down, blow across, and go out of existence into each other. Their cumulative effect is to brighten a stone walk. Again: one might pick the stone to represent death.
But the eternal, lifeless stone can only show us those aspects of death. It’s always there and stoic towards us. That isn’t the whole story. Death is also change, stunning and unexpected in a way. Its power isn’t just dictating to our lives. We want it to dictate to our lives. We want to remember the dead, see them as having made and continually making us and our world better. Reduced to memories and impressions, we are in the end nothing but shining and melting, shining and flying. It could be worse.