Where Are the Snows
(Texas Review Press, 2022)
“How to become a no-stats all-star, the player on the team whose presence alone causes magical outcomes?” Outcomes like magical poetry, I’d say, somehow abra-cadabra’d out of throwaway material. Everyday detritus, especially those chuckle-worthy quirks of thought so quickly forgotten, gone like a glimpse out the window of the L⎯ Chicago provides most details of place⎯ all play the muse for Kathleen Rooney.
The very title of her debut collection, Where Are the Snows?, references transience: Villon’s famed ballade of yesterday’s snow. The fifteenth-century parisian, however, intended his question cynically; when Rooney cites the line, in one of her final poems, she sounds like she’s pining: “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?, goddammit? Villon was a criminal, but he asked the best question.” She rejects the notion that the stuff leaves no trace, no stats. For her, rather, ephemera is an all-star. She’ll use it to raise a dilly of a question, herself: “What kind of fruit makes the best filling for a pie graph?” And she can shoot fresh electricity through the nuts and bolts of a commute:
Fair to say mass transit is a kind of miracle.
Bus is short for omnibus, which means “for everyone.”
Riding the Brown Line at twilight, gazing right into an infinity of windows. The slowest rollercoaster. The coyest voyeurs.
What could we enjoy if we weren’t ruining things for ourselves?
The stacked romance of the double-decker bus. The peculiar hierarchies and rules of the school bus.
The third of those stacked lines, the lone interrogative⎯also out of deep left field⎯holds the key to this slender, winsome, altogether splendid text. It balances the celebration of the quotidian, a kind of miracle, with a considerable burden of woe. Rooney makes room for a line that wishes Donald Trump dead, “in the name of all that is holy,” and for an entire poem insisting she never wants children: “I’ve run the numbers and motherhood is the mother of all raw deals.” That last line is typical, doubling down on her refusal to procreate while keeping things playful, and so, too, the poem’s closing declaration (immediately following “raw deals”) feels exquisitely piquant: “The last word in Moby-Dick is orphan. Relatable.”
The form Rooney has worked up, over what feels like a good many years of walks, commutes, and lots of other writing (including several pieces in the Rail), does without most of poetry’s conventions. The very titles eschew high rhetoric, there are neither “odes” nor “aubades,” and instead rely primarily on dictionary language (i.e., “THE WORD BY WHICH A PERSON OR THING IS DENOTED”) So too, there’s nothing like a regular rhythm, and what rhymes turn up follow no pattern, nearly all percolating within a particular line, as in this list of odors: “figs, pigs, buttered toast, compost, tallow, alley-behind-a-restaurant, kitten yawns, mown lawns, existential pains, after-it-rains, trouble, bubblegum, freedom.” So lengthy a catalogue in fact represents something of a stretch, in Where Are the Snows? The bulk of the lines make some sort of isolated declaration, almost prickly, though Rooney will vary a page-full of such one and two-liners with a question or two, or a combination of fragments. She has no compunctions about slugging in someone else’s words, either, so long as they keep it snappy. From the anti-mother poem:
“Pregnancy is barbaric,” says Shulamith Firestone, and childhood is a kind of “supervised nightmare.”
Prickly, as I say⎯but still playful, the way the line concludes. Rooney adds two further observations of her own: “The nuclear family is a death cult. Aunthood is my jam.” Such sophisticated moves, pivots on a dime, are integral to the book’s special spell, and also, intriguingly, has a companion among Rooney’s other work. As I finished Where Are the Snows?, its fond yet spiky meditations recalled the aging Manhattan mover and shaker of the author’s 2017 novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. Rooney’s unnamed Chicagoan does for her city something like Lillian did for hers, reinvesting its scars and flourishes with awe. Overall, it may well be magical. Or then again, perhaps this is just a poet who knows what she’s about: “To be good at naming, have a subtle brain.“