Twelve or Thirteen Months

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As I was packing my bags back in icy Mid-West for a trip to the sunny West coast, I scanned my shelves to find poems for the flight. My finger brushed the spine of Danish poet (short story writer and novelist) Inge Pederson’s volume The Thirteenth Month, which was translated by Marylin Nelson for the FIELD Translation Series.  Now it’s December, the twelfth month, according to my calendar. But Pederson’s title got me wondering: What if there is a thirteenth month? Why couldn’t there be? And, strangest of all, What if I’ve been missing it all these years because I was calling it something else? Life, in retrospect, can feel like a series of these other namings and misattributions. We look back on the state we considered “health” and find “illness,” or a time when we thought we were bored and find more contentment and ease than we’d recognized then.

Now I am tunneling through dark and clouds like a mole, on my way to the warmth of a Los Angeles winter. I’ve lived in the Midwest all my life, and so for me, December is a time of glorious quiet and communal hush. The sky folds into itself, the days bleach out and then gray, and the muted brightness is skull-scouring. I’ve been told by several well-meaning West Coasters that they don’t understand how anyone could live in those Michigan winter days that stack one atop the next like blocks of concrete. But for me, and for many of us who live there, the winter becomes, or always was, a necessary a part of our consciousness. We live in the world of cracked snow globes, a space of wintermind not unlike that described in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man.” Someone who was not born into winters but subsequently moved to Chicago when she was older, when she had a child of her own, once told me how difficult it seemed for children to play in the snow. She described the arduous process of zipping her son into a puffy winter snowsuit, clipping his gloves to the garment. “That’s no way to raise a child!” she exclaimed. For me, almost nothing was as exciting as snow, a medium which was infinitely malleable: one could walk through it, kick at it, build with it, throw it, and glide one’s arms through it, snow angel style. Snow days were a time of high excitement, and even then the hush of a winter’s day—its ghostly infinity—was beguiling.

Pederson’s is a book of snowdrifts and crystalline silences; it is a winter book, and so will be a useful winter-simulator on this trip. When I turned to its title poem, “The Thirteenth Month,” I found its quiet resistance to the promise of a different kind of infinity, that of constant, “wonderful” weather, comforting. She writes that there is “no one who has any need to hop in the car / looking radiantly sunburned and happy. No one lives for ever.” It is a book circled by grief and “hard truths,” on the one hand, and on the other, it is a book that enacts, with spare, determined realism, the way in which these inevitabilities become, for each of us, necessary. And, finally, it is a book to move through quietly observant, just as we ourselves might hope to move through winters of all sorts.

THE THIRTEENTH MONTH

January morning.
New fallen snow. Now my friends too
are beginning to die in a column
in the newspaper and snow so thick, the garden surrenders.
Surrenders its role as well-kept lawns, beds
with blushing summer-mild phlox. And in this light
there is no one who has any need to hop in the car
looking radiantly sunburned and happy. No one exists forever.
And no one consists
of anything more than water and maybe some other
molecules of longing, the whole thing the eating
feeling of hunger. To grasp
the thirteenth month. Whose light
is a chance to fill your yard with living
shouting small children with sleds.
To throw yourself down on your back in the new fallen snow
and with outspread arms.

Image: “Winter Cottonwoods East V,” by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1954.

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