Material Sense: The Simple Diction of Winter in Twyla Hansen & Don Welch
By Steph Camerone
Don Welch and Twyla Hansen are Nebraska writers reimagining the landscape and environment of their home. These poets are concerned with using language to capture the silent beauty of their surroundings and the broader human connection to that place. Though they are contemplating the same setting the varieties of poetic devices used by both poets, such as a reliance on memory and sense depiction, allow similar themes to be explored through individual angles. For instance, Welch and Hansen both come to grips with the harsh winter weather of the Midwestern plain by using simple, short syllabic diction with a wealth of punctuation. Though their styles are comparable Welch relies on a shared physical sensation of the weather in “There is No Wind in Heaven” and Hansen explores the human connection to winter by understanding the environmental evolution of winter through material memory in “The Snowball Sisters.”
Our concept of the harsh months of winter has advanced past the fear of freezing to that of snuggled warmth, coziness, and comfort. Within “The Snowball Sisters” Hansen mediates on winter through the material creation of winter and uses correlating images to describe winter through a time lapse between pre-historic years and the future, just a few months away. By bending time this poem represents the fact that our internal creation of nature, and its poetic depiction, is heavily relies on the ability to imagine our environment in not just its present form but its past and future iterations as well.
Reading the news, I try to picture it:
Earth, once a gigantic snowball.
There’s now evidence our planet turned
so cold, oceans froze from pole to equator.
Half a billion years ago, for some ten million years.
Thawing then in a sudden greenhouse effect.
The simple elemental aspects of winter have not changed since the ice age and this simplicity of nature is echoed by the simple diction and imagery. The choice to describe the earth as “once a gigantic snowball” is a child-like explanation for an ice age. While she could have developed the scientific “evidence” that was at the tip of her mind Hansen forgoes the multi-syllabic proper scientific terms and allows the poem to remain as simple as snow. Used in this context “snowball” is a basic noun that denotes fun and childhood; the tone of this image is playful, exaggerated and correlates to the speakers’ presence among children, and the impact of material on nature. The poem later returns to the image of the snowball to describe the activities that will ensue once winter returns: “We will be cozy around the fire, or throwing / snowballs.” The snowball evolves from an icy containment unleashed by nature that took control to a harmless pastime that is defined by the material conceiving of nature.
While the poem does continue to describe the “greenhouse effect” and does insert the article into the poem, “the scientist says. The meltdown is rapid. / Evolution, we are told, speeded up, defining / everything: complex species,” her use of short sentences and heavy punctuation further develops this frank description of a complex environmental phenomenon. By doing so Hansen is able to make a quiet commentary towards those who do not believe in the science of climate change. She depicts through the absence of specified diction that anyone who reads her poem or ever picks up a snowball can understand how the earth is changing.
Unlike Hansen, who is uses a person’s material memory when articulating winter; Don Welch uses the physical sense of touch and feeling to identify human interaction with the harsh season. “There is No Wind in Heaven” is one of Welch’s most moving poems; his images are stirring and rely on the most basic feelings of comfort and touch by the inanimate. In this poem the connection between a human to the wind is starkly juxtaposed between the soul’s ethereal relation to nature. While heaven is imagined as the perfect paradise Welch focuses his poem on cataloguing the imperfections he views of such a place. His list begins by stating the ways in which nature will be perfect in heaven. The first image is that of a leaf that is green and beautiful but has no movement. In this image just as the life has been taken from the body the body of this leaf is removed with the wind. He continues his imagery of what will not be there “dead branches… no moans in the leaves, no whistling nor’westers”. In these lines Welch opens the poem from our sense of sight to that of sound. First the poem leads one to imagine what cannot be seen in heaven and then shifts to what cannot be heard.
As Welch opens the poem to the sense his tone turns as well. By starting the third stanza with a declarative towards God Welch is inserting his voice directly into the poem. By moving the focus of the poem from overhead description to personal reaction the sorrow felt early quickly turns to pleas of lament.
God, how I’ll miss the wind wherever
I am. I think the dead might like
a breath of it on the edge
of their porcelain souls,
or its strong palm slapped broadly
against their rich complexions.
The third stanzas opening line holds a palpable sense of human loss. And while Welch wants the reader to feel that human emotion this poem is quick to always shift the focus back to the nature. One poetic device Welch uses to achieve this rapid shift in images is enjambment. By ending the sixth line at “wherever” the movement of the “I am” lowers the position of the speaker in the poem and lifts the “wherever” and the wind to prominence. Welch shifts the narrative from his singular plight to the universal loss of the dead and embodies the varying touches of the wind. This creates a constant movement within the poem between the three subjects of being, nature, and the spirit.
In addition, it is interesting to note the use of terms like “wherever” to describe heaven and “porcelain” to describe souls. As depicted in these stanzas Welch is constantly identifying nature with study, strong descriptors and relating the spirit to images of fragility. While many see heaven as the place of ever-lasting strength Welch believes that it is not strength without a nature to push. The personification of wind as “a breath” or “strong palm slapped broadly” connects pure, tangible memories of feeling. By focusing on the sense of touch in these last stanzas Welch is making that final connection with the reader through personal memory; anyone can imagine thrashing sea gales, prairie gusts, or dry cracked breeze slapping against their bodies. However strong the wind may be it is not with the image of a the untameable wind that Welch leaves us with. “I’ve always thought the wind is the sky / come down, but there is no sky in heaven.” In this last stanza Welch realizes that there is one force that can stop his all-powerful wind. While the natural, spiritual, and personal have been imagined in tandem throughout the poem but it ends with the image of the “sky” and “heaven” always parallel and the body acting as intermediary.
By using simple diction to create evocative images and descriptions of winter both Twyla Hansen and Don Welch rely on the various physical sense to situate the reader in a certain environment. Welch relies on our physical sensation of weather to create a connection in the reader, Hansen represents the cycles of the earth as a larger, evolutionary memory of time and nature. “The Snowball Sisters” and “There is No Wind is Heaven” are two poems where whether it be children throwing snowballs or dead leaves twirling through a wet wind two poets relied on eliciting personal memory to draw the reader into the poems world.
“The Greenhouse Effect Is a Natural Phenomenon That Warms the Earth’s Surface.” BIS. UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Web. 06 Dec. 2011.