Dirty Snow is a reminder of where poetry should be: at the forefront of political thought, drawing the connections that help us to deeply consider our relationship to the actions of our country and the world around us. Tracing the lines between life at home and war abroad, the collection explores the murders committed and deaths suffered by Canadian troops during our military involvement in Afghanistan. Primarily though, it’s concerned with the connections we’d rather not draw – the ways Canadian war affects us personally, and, perhaps most unsettling, the ways that it doesn’t.
A confession first: I grew up in the Slocan Valley, where the majority of the collection is set. You’ll pardon the pun (it’s too obvious to resist, and how often does one get to use a dead metaphor with genuine accuracy?), but the imagery of the Valley through the seasons hits home for me in a way that it can’t possibly for all.
So when Tom Wayman writes of cows grazing at Lebahdo Flats, for example, I know the exact cows he means. An interesting dynamic – I can’t say the same for the the hedge-rows of Tintern Abbey.
The particular closeness to the work that this affords me though, only strengthens the burden of its message. The poems are not shrill or condemning, but they are demanding. Snow is filled with pieces that make connections we haven’t made ourselves, not because they’re not evident, but because they are exhausting. To accept Wayman’s work as accurate is likely to accept oneself as guilty of inaction; perhaps it is easier to accept oneself as guilty of non-consideration.
There Is No War, And You Would Not Have To Consider It If There Was, one of my favourites in the collection, covers it all: the cost of war, money used to kill in another country rather than to create a better life in ours, the homogenized and ignorant Western depictions of Afghans, the deaths of innocent and violent alike, on both sides; above all, the absurdity of our attempts at justification, when explicitly stated and considered as though logical. The poem reminds us with a straight face that the “[a]rmed individuals on the opposing side, you see…have no right to intervene in/Afghanistan’s domestic affairs,/are determined to impose by force/a set of alien values…” The effectiveness of this kind of plain-faced satire-by-restatement is funny only because it is appalling. One wonders how many lines of televised argument and how many public personalities in today’s political sphere would be reduced to laughable self-satire by similar treatment.
Provocative as it is, the strength of Dirty Snow is that it is not prescriptive. As with There Is No War.., the collection at large may decry inaction, but its call is for any action, regardless of direction – as with all poetry, the intent is to reintegrate us with the surrounding world. If the poems push, it is with the expectation of being pushed back. If the poems are loud, it is because the problem is silence.
The engine that drives Dirty Snow is fueled with grief, not anger. If there is hope for a lessening of the world’s violence, Wayman seems to see it in personal grief, a story that transcends any boundaries that humans have managed to build for themselves. The second half of the collection is focused on loss and the many ways in which it is utterly irrevocable. Richard Meissenheimer is a tender part of a community’s grief, an admission of the hole that death leaves in a community; For L.C. is a wryly unsettling look at Wayman’s own sense of mortality, just the sort of thing we’d rather not write down ourselves. The second half of Snow is filled with the lucid heartbreak, tempered by the redemptive certainty in the ineffable, that can be found in much of Wayman’s later work.
Dirty Snow is a rousing argument for the return of poetry in mainstream cultural consciousness. Modern poetry seems often guilty of relegating itself to exploration of the beautiful, the abstract, the attractively melancholy – the topics that unfortunately, but somewhat justifiably, have characterized it in the mainstream as impressive but irrelevant. Instead of sauntering whimsically behind us, Dirty Snow is precisely where poetry should be – charging head-on past us and demanding that we keep up. Fiery, melancholic, and accessible, Wayman’s collection is a much-needed two-part challenge: to read more poetry, and to act on it.