The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

Roland Flint’s “Varna Snow” is a poignant meditation on time, specifically on the fluid continuum of past, present, and future. The poem’s dramatic opening sentence alone is composed of a freewheeling tumble of temporal references: “summer,” “years,” “morning,” “hour,” and a specific day (namely, the Fourth of July). The poet, now at midlife—he recalls a childhood event now forty-three years past—ponders the implications of being timebound. Aided by the engine of the imagination, every person, Flint finds, can exist at any moment simultaneously at the juncture of three tenses: in the past, the present, and the future. Here, a natural phenomena, specifically the heavy clouds of windblown seeds released in the early summer by cottonwood trees, triggers a series of observations, first about the poet’s childhood on the North Dakota farmlands; then about his present moment as a scholar visiting Varna (in the early 1980’s, Flint traveled to Bulgaria as part of a project to translate several prominent national poets); and ultimately about the uncertain time ahead, presumably the inevitable experience of death.

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The poem begins tied to a specific time and space. It is early June in Varna, the Bulgarian port on the west shore of the Black Sea. For days now, the poet has watched women sweep the fleecy cottonwood seeds that drift like snow along the city sidewalks. That present moment and location are not actually established until nearly two-thirds of the way through the poem, however. Indeed, the poem’s opening sentence is a breathless rush back forty-three years to the North Dakota farmland where the poet grew up and specifically to a memory, triggered by the faux snow of the Bulgarian cottonwoods, of an unexpected Fourth of July snow that had lasted only an hour before melting into “the day’s parades, fireworks, and speeches.”

That memory, in turn, triggers a further recollection of the Dakota cottonwood trees and their annual release of seeds that would lightly silt the summer farmlands in a wintry white. Lovingly, the poet particularizes that memory, recalling the cottonwood seeds as softer than the snowflakes and moving wildly with the “lightest breath of moving air.” Abruptly cutting to the present, forty-three years later and a half a world away, the poet in line 19 confesses that he has not been back to his North Dakota home. Aided by his imagination, however, he now feels suddenly close to that distant place and time and decides the drifts of Varna “snow” are quite like the real snows of long-ago North Dakota winters.

The poet, clearly touched by such spontaneous recollection, impulsively gathers three great handfuls of the fleecy seeds and stuffs them into a knothole of a tree. Ruefully, he identifies the three handfuls as representing his past, his present, and his future: “where I come from/ Where I am today, and where I’m headed in the snow.” Stuffing the tree, thus, suggests the bittersweet work of the imagination itself as it serves, like the tree, as a repository—for the memories of the past, for the sort of observations that keep the present resonant and unexpectedly suggestive, and ultimately for the unsettling anxieties of tomorrow.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The poem is invitingly direct. Although Flint was a career academic, teaching for more than thirty-five years at Georgetown University, his poem is remarkably free of the elevated diction, dense philosophizing, and studied versification that often characterize the work of contemporary academic poets. He often described his poems as “common feelings, captured in uncommon language.” Indeed, his diction is deceptively simple, a sort of elegant colloquialism, a style Flint often termed “user-friendly.” Language does not call attention to itself. Flint dispenses with the conventions of rhythm and rhyme. The line length undulates in a sort of gentle ebb and flow patterning appropriate to a memory poem. The verse lines themselves are set in a supple free verse pitched to enhance an atmosphere of bittersweet recollection by frequently indulging the sibilant’s sound—the first four-line sentence alone contains six such sounds—whose calming hypnotic effect is quite pronounced. When the poem is read aloud, and Flint’s poetry is very much pitched for recitation, that soft lilting sound, along with the repeated use of rich, rolling long vowels, slows the poem’s lines and enhances the poem’s general mood of recollection.

In addition to the language, point of view here is direct. Flint comes to his poem without affectation. The point of the view here is the unmediated first-person—the poem commences and then sustains the vulnerability of the first-person pronoun—an intimacy that helps create a voice appropriate for the poem’s confessional mode. It is as if the poet is speaking directly to the reader. Flint was fond of quoting a line from fellow poet Stanley Kunitz that poetry should be an “art so transparent that you look through and see the world.” The poem thus relies on direct observation, the intuitive response to an ordinary natural event, the snowing down of the cottonwood seeds.

Until the closing lines, the poem resists indulging any of the intrusive embellishments of figurative language and heavy-handed symbols. The poet records with careful and loving eye and then recollects with similar directness. Like poet Theodore Roethke, whose influence Flint often acknowledged and who was the subject of Flint’s doctoral work at the University of Minnesota, Flint here takes as his subject the ability of the unadorned natural world to trigger such a response and, in turn, to reveal modest truths so obvious that they border on cliché—how persistent the past can prove, how stunning the present moment should be, and how uncertain tomorrow must remain. Yet, like the cottonwood trees that every year send out that splendid shower of snowy seeds, such truths are no less compelling for being ordinary.

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