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Observing the month of decline, first snow with L.M. Montgomery, Rita Dove and company
Flirtations with the freezing mark. Temporal squalls.
November feels like the first bracket between a sentence that will last several months. Before icicles, before trees turn skeletal, before the ivory of winter sets in, this peculiar month arrives.
L.M. Montgomery wrote of November in The Blue Castle, describing the uncanny witchery in its charged trees.
"…Days full of a fine, pale sunshine that sifted through the late, leafless gold of the juniper-trees and glimmered among the grey beeches, lighting up evergreen banks of moss and washing the colonnades of the pines. Days with a high-sprung sky of flawless turquoise. Days when an exquisite melancholy seemed to hang over the landscape and dream about the lake. But days, too, of the wild blackness of great autumn storms, followed by dank, wet, streaming nights when there was witch-laughter in the pines and fitful moans among the mainland trees.”
Margaret Atwood writes that “November is the month of entrance, month of descent,” in her poem Doorway. I revisit Rita Dove’s November for Beginners annually, because what she writes is true: the sky is softening, the rain won’t give. November is a month of decline. We rise in a light that is already leaving.1
In a letter to W.D. Snodgrass in late November of 1958, Anne Sexton wrote:
“I am younger each year at the first snow. When I see it, suddenly, in the air, all little and white and moving; then I am in love again and very young and I believe everything.”
As a child the first snowfall felt cinematic. It was punctual, its arrival predictable, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore.
My mother doesn’t like driving in snow.
We were in Georgian Bay on a wet, gusty Tuesday recently when the clouds bore in and the sky turned white. My first encounter of the season: exiting the grocery store, shielding my face against pellets of ice until the barrage became snow. It arrived as a nuisance. My mother wanted to get home before the roads became a mess, the first bout always historic and haunted with its collisions, close calls. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are, the city or countryside—drivers are slow to get their snow legs. But it lasted only a fraction of an hour before the sun broke through, erasing any evidence of precipitation. The first fall evoked the erratic moods of a child: first a tantrum, then shy, evanescent.
There’s milk on the air2 in Jorie Graham’s poem San Sepolcro: “In this blue light / I can take you there / snow having made me / a world of bone / seen through to.” Lisel Mueller reminds us that in November, “Outside the house the wind is howling / and the trees are creaking horribly.” A “web of snow engulfed” Nikki Giovanni in Winter Poem.
November is a unique month, oscillating between calm and chaos.
The sky tonight, Saturday—peak of the Leonids—boasts a clear slate of heaven. I’m outside on my balcony, watching a cloud dragon dance along the horizon: body of a creature, face of a man. Its profile parts the sky—airplanes crest its nose, stars freckle its rear. The noise of the TV inside can be heard through the windowpanes. I like being outside in this private space at night, hidden by shadow, watching the world. I observe the cloud’s parade until it blurs, obliterates, a solid picture morphing into obscurity. As it does this, I’m dreaming up sentences, descriptions, approximating how long it takes for an image to dissolve into nothing. I thought about running inside to grab my phone, take a picture. To share with someone else this incredible image, knowing that once the cloud broke, it would be gone forever. But November is a month of transit. An interlude. We’re suspended, like the cloud, in a state of passing. Of anticipation. We’re here, in November, then gone.