JANUARY 14, 2020
WINTER: EFFULGENCES and Devotions is Sarah Vap’s seventh book, the culmination of a decade-long project. It astonishes; it annihilates; it contemplates. It started as an exercise, a discipline, a way of staying on task as a writer, even as Vap was becoming a wife, a mother to one, then two, then three sons, living and studying and working all over the world, concluding with her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her and working with her. Winter is a hybridized text, growing out of Vap’s daily writing praxis and out of the intellectual work of her dissertation. She describes its genesis in “Winter, several years later”:
I am now several years into this practice of trying to write a poem
about winter during the pieces of time I find to be alone. Usually very
early in the morning. Almost always at this desk. Sometimes I have
just a few seconds before they wake. Sometimes I get an hour, but
during that hour I am usually so dispersed that all I can do is find a
phrase or two, the beginning of a path back to my mind.
I read Winter in three sittings in half a day. Sitting number one was from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., in a comfortable chair in the courtyard outside my gym. After two hours, I came out from under the thrall of Winter. It was too dark for easy reading, and too hard. So I walked home, made dinner, and read from 9:30–11:00 p.m. I was more than halfway through the book, so I closed it, to finish later. I woke up at 2:00 a.m. and finished it at 4:00. I don’t read like that. But Winter wouldn’t put me down, and Vap’s voice echoed; it stayed active in my mind while I was reading, while I was on a reading break, and for days after: its form; the difficulty of its questions; the beauty, poignance, and pain of its imagery, including the refrain, set as a header and footer on every single page: “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” At an event in Venice, California, I was able to see Vap present Winter. She read the header and footer with every poem, on every page. The effect was haunting, and the repetition has many effects — emphasis, flattening, shifting resonances. Indeed, the repeated use of “Winter” as the title for most of the poems in the book similarly makes a routine, a steadiness, and a labor that characterizes all the poetry in this volume.
Vap reveals what Marxists call the “mode of production” on every page, in every poem. The work itself is created in stolen time, and it documents a personal and an intellectual journey. It embodies a commitment that is as admirable as it is daunting. The pacing is often staccato, with interruptions jarring the reader into a resounding halt, as evinced in a poem early in the volume, titled “Winter”: “And it makes me wonder — has this been a book, for all this time, / about trying to hear. About straining to perceive. And all of the / limitations. I.” This is an ars poetica moment, reflecting on the project, yes, and on writing poetry, but also on something we all do: wonder about our work, why we do it, how we do it.
A later poem, also titled “Winter,” says this:
It’s sometime in the second or third year of this project and I’ve begun
to think of the winter poem, not as a poem but as an attempt to focus
on something crucial — it is not a poem, but a reminding.
When I try to write the poem about winter, I am trying to hold,
tenderly, onto something of the childhoods of my children — my
children are flowing right past me, and into the world.
The winter poem has become a lament about time, a lament
It’s a lament for everything, and praise.
An act of worry. Or anxiety. I.
I begin to think of the winter poem not as a poem, but as a devotion.
I begin to think of the winter poem not as a poem, but as a test of
Or proof of my selfhood —
do I have these things, and have I ever had them.
I — he’s awake. He’s coming down the stairs, right now.
We are with Sarah Vap in these moments and in these thoughts. She makes her experience ours. I don’t recall ever having felt closer to a poet as I was immersed in their work. There is a sharing here, a feeling of collaboration almost, even though Vap’s mind and material conditions are uniquely her own.
Near the center of the book, in a long poem called “Winter, a few years later,” Vap asks:
What happens if I smear a single question across time — who is
innocent, and for how long. What makes us.
What of ours is our own.
Is it still possible — in this world — to have a soul.
What if I extend my question across years, and across thousands of
attempts to write a poem.
What if, instead of a compression or a culling of language — I push
and I push at the same questions until, in the surplus, in thousands of
failed poems about winter, collected across many winters, I — .
I often say to my students — push at that harder. And — think about
I say to my students — push your thought until you discover what is
behind that thought.
I say to my students — smash something together.
Here we have a pedagogy; a method; and a strategy of writing, thinking, and confronting the world around us. Vap is smashing many things together — winter, drones, sons, a husband, jobs, loss, health insurance or the lack of it, ideas, and Poetry — in an effort to make meaning, to make sense of the world around her, the world her children are moving into inexorably, all too quickly.
Capital-P Poetry enters the scene in the guise of Wallace Stevens. A short poem, also near the center of the book, takes its title from one of Stevens’s best-known works, “The Snow Man.” Vap writes: “I beg winter to freeze us. To stop us right here. This / tangle, or this depletion, or this rage — this / perfectly reverberating winter. This one, I.” Stevens is something of an antagonist in this volume. Vap admires him, resists him, takes him on, page after page, culminating in a much longer poem forty pages later, also titled “The Snow Man,” in which she asserts that “Stevens is always so close to being right.” To say this of the ever-correct Stevens, one of the 20th-century maestros of American Poetry, is provocative, confrontational. Vap meditates on his formulation of Imagination and Reality: “Wallace Stevens wrote that the nobility of poetry is a violence from / within that protects us from the violence without. He says that the / imagination pushes back against the pressure of reality.” Vap interrogates and then rejects what she sees as his big, monolithic ideas: “Stevens is singular, insular, too individual, too unbroken, too / impermeable, too wry — he’s a smug transcendent. He’s too much a / winner. He’s too inviolable. He’s—” Vap pushes back, offering her alternative approach:
I just want to smash everything together and break everything, I.
Stevens’ formulation of Reality and Imagination remain too whole to
feel like this world,
even when he writes lines so seemingly-dissolutive as “one must
have a mind of winter” or “the listener, who listens in the snow, And,
nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing
that is” in his poem “The Snow Man.”
I used to love the paradox of these lines — I loved the speaker’s
apparent willingness to lose his human individuality into the meshes
of Geological Time, or Winter, or Nothingness.
But dissolution isn’t what happens for me in that poem anymore —
all I can feel in Stevens’ poem, right now, is someone not hearing
It is the imperviousness of Stevens that Vap is challenging with her own permeability. She says as much in “Winter” (29): “During these years of babies — I have felt extreme susceptibility, / and porousness. // I have felt sensations and information, originating from somewhere / outside of me, now easily enter my fields of selfhood.” We might call this openness. We might see this openness as an invitation to cohabit Vap’s poetry with her, with her family, with her students, with her ideas, and with her humanness.
Immediately after her long poem, her Stevens rebuttal, we get yet another short “The Snow Man” poem: “Snow exists somewhere between theory, art, and action. / One of them says to his brother: Are you scared of this snowman? / Yeah. Then I’ll kill it for you.” This may be the voice of one of her sons, who provide Vap with more than one found poem or disarming quip in the volume. Witnessing the development of her sons reminds us of the time axis in the making of Winter. The boys are ubiquitous, curious witnesses to Vap’s daily life and to her writing process.
A few pages before the end of the volume, we get an important “process” poem, also titled “Winter.” After asserting that “I don’t know how to stop making this book,” Vap offers a kind of overview of the book’s trajectory:
I am writing a book about a book that is no longer here — as my
children are no longer here — they are there now. […]
We are, mostly, all outside of each other.
This book is, mostly, outside of me. So many different kinds of books it
has been, or could still be, apart from me.
Over there. Right there.
This poem is a kind of summation, containing so much truth, so many insights into human relationships, art, theory, form, and the mystery of completion.
The book finishes with an epilogue poem, another “Winter,” that Vap writes from her desk, on a good morning. By this point, the reader is right there with her, a companion in her solitude, longing for her to have more time to think, to write, to imagine:
Another dark winter morning and I am alone at my desk. There is a
window above my desk, but I can see nothing except myself, my cup of
coffee, the living room behind me, dimly lit by the fire. There is a new
moon, so it is extremely dark outside. […]
In the quiet. In my brains. In this darkness. I have a thought. I can
my thought it is so soft,
my thought it is so thick,
my thought it is so slow,
it is — suspended. My thought is tenderness. It is: console. It is:
the fire is burning, there is a cup of coffee in front of me, I am having a
I am so happy.
A modest, soft landing for a book that has asked the hardest of questions, under strained circumstances, that has resisted easy answers; that has acknowledged, more than four hundred times, that “drones are probably killing someone right now”; that has held on to poetry, to discipline, and to love. Vap’s Winter will not let you down easy. It will haunt — and comfort — you through many winters of your own.
Chris Freeman teaches courses on fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in the Department of English at the University of Southern California. He is co-editor of Isherwood in Transit, which is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in June 2020.