Off The Menu: “Sestina d’Inverno”

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s snowing in Chicago right now (where I’m supposed to be), supposed to snow in New York (where I’m stuck right now because it’s snowing in Chicago)…so I’ve got snow on the brain. A pal of mine posted a picture on Instagram of a snowy Chicago suburban scene with a catchy little blurb about how if he were an Eskimo, he’d have an alternate word for snow.

Whenever I think of alternate words for snow, I think of Anthony Hecht’s “Sestina d’Inverno” and my homework on the first day of AP English class senior year – to write an interpretation of the poem. I can’t remember what sort of trite nonsense I slapped together and turned in (how I got a 5 on that exam will forever remain one of life’s great mysteries), but I guarantee it didn’t do the original work justice:

Here in this bleak city of Rochester,
Where there are twenty-seven words for “snow,”
Not all of them polite, the wayward mind
Basks in some Yucatan of its own making,
Some coppery, sleek lagoon, or cinnamon island
Alive with lemon tints and burnished natives,

And O that we were there. But here the natives
Of this grey, sunless city of Rochester
Have sown whole mines of salt about their land
(Bare ruined Carthage that it is) while snow
Comes down as if The Flood were in the making.
Yet on that ocean Marvell called the mind

An ark sets forth which is itself the mind,
Bound for some pungent green, some shore whose natives
Blend coriander, cayenne, mint in making
Roasts that would gladden the Earl of Rochester
With sinfulness, and melt a polar snow.
It might be well to remember that an island

Was blessed heaven once, more than an island,
The grand, utopian dream of a noble mind.
In that kind climate the mere thought of snow
Was but a wedding cake; the youthful natives,
Unable to conceive of Rochester,
Made love, and were acrobatic in the making.

Dream as we may, there is far more to making
Do than some wistful reverie of an island,
Especially now when hope lies with the Rochester
Gas and Electric Co., which doesn’t mind
Such profitable weather, while the natives
Sink, like Pompeians, under a world of snow.

The one thing indisputable here is snow,
The single verity of heaven’s making,
Deeply indifferent to the dreams of the natives,
And the torn hoarding-posters of some island.
Under our igloo skies the frozen mind
Holds to one truth: it is grey, and called Rochester.

No island fantasy survives Rochester,
Where to the natives destiny is snow
That is neither to our mind nor of our making.


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