Velvet Shoes

I’ve got a gorgeous song for you today, despite a difficult week for new work. I’ll try to get to it shortly, with only a little throat-clearing first.

It was 18 degrees F below zero* this morning. Oh, there was probably some wind chill too, but let’s not put too fine a point on temps like that — Minnesota January winter certainly doesn’t.

Our winter, to speak broadly, isn’t just cold. There’s also ice, snow, and winter cancellations and rescheduling. If that sounds grim, well, somedays it is — but then there’s a little something else about this sort of winter when you run across others out in it. Early this morning I saw another bicyclist with full face mask and goggles sawing their bike over the packed snow pavement. Before that, a woman walking her dog, each of them concentrating on getting such business done. In other duties, some school kids were walking to school. Every one of those fellow citizens are dealing with this shared winter too, and despite not being able to see much of their faces, you can likely feel something of a common cause.

But winter can also be experienced without even such scattered crowds. I used to commute around midnight on a bicycle, and the urban streets on rough winter nights would be the same as some new nowhere, like unto a SciFi paperback cover of the astronaut gazing through alien ruins. My wife sometimes runs just before dawn to a park that has no others but her and the existential animals.

Today’s piece is a winter poem by American poet Elinor Wylie, who wrote absolutely lovely short lyrical poems around 100 years ago. Hers is a slightly different winter. First, she’s walking with someone else. She doesn’t mention the temperature, but I doubt it quite as bitter-brittle as my morning. Hers is explicitly windless, but there is snow, the kind of loose powder that tends to fall when it’s colder than the soggy wet flakes.

Here’s a link to the text of Wylie’s Velvet Shoes,  in case you’d like to follow along.

Wylie’s reputation dropped fairly rapidly after her premature death in 1928. One knock against her pretty poems was that they were that and nothing else but attractive pictures drawn in word music. Well of course music itself doesn’t task itself with more than to be attractive, and visual art doesn’t need to support a philosophical argument or insight explicitly.

Elinor Wylie at the door

Sure it’s a pretty line: “I shall go shod in silk,” but damn it, open the door, it’s seriously winter out here!

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I rather like this poem’s picture, because it’s something of a white-space void with just scant details coming out of the snow, like a Whistler painting. But it’s not even visual clues for the most part — the details are textures, feel images: veils, silk, wool and fleece, feathers and down, and then the velvet of the title. There is testimony that there is no noise, much less talk. Indeed, her partner in the walk is near-totally obscured, and this choice —conscious or unconscious — seems striking to me. Is she alienated from them, or so close that there’s no novelty in mentioning? The sensuality of the imagery may give undercurrents of erotic love, but the obscuring of the partner makes that reading stranger.

I seem to be specializing recently in taking leaps at alternate readings that even I don’t think likely, though not impossible either, like my wild-ass guess that Truth’s body moldering in the grave next to Emily Dickinson’s Died for Beauty could plausibly be John Brown. Don’t bet your grade on that one, students! But I thought of the woman walking her dog this cold and snow-covered morning. No reason to talk there, nor was the dog taking time out for a barking address. Wasn’t that dog wearing a wool sweater? Less romantic a poem, but not impossible.

Though it’s freshly done, I’m fond of the music I came up with for Wylie’s poem. Maybe you’ll like the little song they make together when I performed it this morning. The player gadget is below for some of you, and if you don’t have that, you have this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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*That’s minus 28 C. Minus.

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