Where Are the Snows?
by Kathleen Rooney
The University Press of SHSU, 2022
Winner of the X. J. Kennedy Prize, selected by Kazim Ali
reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
First off, I love the title of this book! The title phrase comes from a poem by François Villon, but for me it evokes the song, “Where Are the Snows?” from the musical comedy I Do! I Do!, lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt, so every time I pick up Kathleen Rooney’s Where Are the Snows I have that song playing in my head. And maybe I’m not that far off base! Her book does contain music and comedy! These are prose poems with lyrical and conversational rhythms and flow, and, yes, they are funny! Indeed, “my cup runneth over” * with wit, wisdom, and wordplay when I read this book.
*another song from I Do! I Do! as well as a biblical quotation (Psalms 23:5, King James Version)
Likewise, the book is full of quotations, associations, rabbit holes, meanderings, and marvelous connections. It came from poem-a-day project in April, 2020, and holds together like a pandemic notebook, a way of making sense of senseless things, and/or of celebrating meaningful things. In “Dress Up,” the opening poem, we get the cover of book:
“Let’s give featureless time some features:
Horn-rimmed glasses—bushy eyebrows attached—and a large plastic nose above a plushy mustache.”
In the next poem, we get a mood—“This year I gave up hope for Lent”—and a made-up color: “The otherworldly pallor of the sky—shall we say it’s greige?” Things teeter and totter between hopeless and funny throughout the book, and the fulcrum is information. Things we can learn while in isolation. Facts that apply: “Inaccurate to claim that ‘humans are the real virus.’ But fair to say some of us are the scum of the earth.” Ways to balance despair with righteous anger. Or with conundrum. Or riddles and jokes. “Can a fasting period make time pass faster?”
I think I am the perfect reader for this book, loving connections and coincidences and having read several of Rooney’s books before! In the poem, “Every Now and Then,” I read this: “Once in a while, the pigeons undulate across the blue void in such a way that I wish I could join them.” And I thought of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, her novel in the voice of a World War I pigeon. I saw the title “Pedestrian Access” and immediately thought of Rooney’s novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. The poem meanders like a good long walk: “What if you could tell through your toes when you entered a new zipcode?” “The word ‘jaywalk’ has nothing to do with blue jays.” And wisdom and the pandemic wait patiently around any corner: “The human gait is called the double pendulum, and time is a virus that infects us all.” Again, fact as fulcrum—I loved learning about the double pendulum!
Other connections and coincidences abound, would be different for each reader, and were lots of fun for me. “Today is a Wednesday.” Today was a Wednesday, on my first reading of the book! Today is a Wednesday, as I post this review! In “The Special Organ of Breathing and Smelling,” I read, “Palmitic acid is the key to library scent.” I work in a library! But what is palmitic acid? The most common fatty acid, I learn. So how is it “the key to library scent”? Is it the scent we humans give off? It’s in palm oil, and in us. But is it all the hand lotion in a library these days, after all the dehydrating hand sanitizer? More pandemic in the background: “Whenever I lose my sense of smell, I get a sensation of not quite living within the first person.” Indeed! “Epistolary” has a postcard in it, and a postcard came with my copy of the book! The one in the book is “of a place called Lonesome Lake. I’ve never been; I bought it in a thrift shop.” I love it—a poem with a semi-colon in it. And, again, the pandemic in the background, the sense of community despite isolation: “In a way, we all live on Lonesome Lake right now.”
I encourage you to read Where Are the Snows and find your own favorite facts and connections. I found many, all through and in “The Act of Passing Across or Through,” about public transportation. I, too, have “[ridden] the Brown Line at twilight, gazing right into an infinity of windows.” Sometimes an actress, I can connect to the poem “How to Act” in a particular way, and in a neighborly way, as in “All the neighborhood’s a stage.” As a still alive, still aging person, I can connect to the sentiment, “I must be getting old. I hope you are too.” I know you’ll find something pertinent—“Denial is a popular first response to a plague”—and something wonderful.