What Darkness Makes of Light: On Nina MacLaughlin’s “Winter Solstice”
By Heather TreselerNovember 29, 2023
Winter Solstice by Nina MacLaughlin
Our turn around this fulcrum of darkness is the subject of Nina MacLaughlin’s arresting book-length lyric essay, Winter Solstice (2023). Few writers can pull off a 70-page prose poem with an anthropological bent, especially one that rivets the reader. MacLaughlin—a journalist, memoirist, and classicist—happens to be one of them. Each of her previous books is a study in radical transformation: a career shift from seasoned journalist to carpenter in Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter (2015), a reimagining of women’s mythological metamorphoses in Wake, Siren: Ovid Restrung (2019), and a meditation on the longest season of light in Summer Solstice (2020).
In her new book, MacLaughlin slides a knife edge under the circadian rhythms of our fall into winter, tracking our inchoate urges—to feast and imbibe; to retreat into cozy hibernacula; to skate, ski, and sled, reveling in the dangers of ice and snow; to press naked skin tenderly against skin; and to “honor the dark with festivals of light.” Drawing on poets and singers from Kobayashi Issa and Emily Dickinson to Will Oldham and Mary Ruefle, MacLaughlin reveals how our responses to the solstice, which means “sun-stilled,” are patterned, ancient, and explicable, related to our deepest fears and yearning for survival.
Like the author, I have spent most of my life in New England, and yet each year’s autumnal plummet makes me feel that I am living in a shrinking, low-ceilinged house. Claustrophobia sets in as the furnace cranks on, rattling the radiators, inducing afternoon sleepiness or a desperation to be outside, however chilly, and then back indoors, exchanging my winter coat for an indoor fleece. For two or three months of the year, it’s never a question of whether to wear a sweater: it’s how many.
MacLaughlin captures the strange beauty of this season in its costume changes and the contrary urges it provokes in us. She asserts, convincingly, that “winter invites a turning in […] an upped interiority” and yet also asks us to travel “a different wavelength of intimacy and connection, to see into the dark well of someone and see the white flash of their soul.” Relationships begun in what is colloquially known as cuffing season often have a fierce libidinal intensity, and this book—in its homage to the sensorium of early winter—helps us see why this might be the case.
In “Inhale the Darkness,” the first of her essay’s four sections, MacLaughlin describes the seasonal darkening of the Charles River, which travels 80 meandering miles from Echo Lake in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to Boston Harbor. Standing on the riverbank, she observes that its churn looks like “white fur rising on the backs of fast black animals,” the sly sonic echo of “backs,” “fast,” and “black” hinting at the river’s kinetic current and the lyric project of this book. MacLaughlin seduces our sensibilities—via our senses—to persuade us, in this volume and its companion, that extremes of darkness and light instruct us about parts of ourselves we generally keep hidden from view. As the first snow falls into the river, she maps a landscape of stark antitheses:
[T]he river [turned] black and the fat flakes fell and the sky was the thick almost-white of the sky when it snows […] The air felt clean and bright in the lungs. From the west, a pair of swans appeared, flying low above the river, through the snow, white above black […] and close enough to hear the thwap of their wide wings against the air and a guttural croaking from their throats, more amphibious than avian. All went still as they flew by, everything quieted inside […] then a churn of associations—the swan’s position in alchemy as an initial confrontation with the soul; Leda and a swan-beak speculum; the ten-starred constellation Cygnus caught glittering in galactic branches.
It was a secret Friday ritual, to meet along the riverbank at noon and drink two beers and talk and laugh and then go home and fuck with wildness in our eyes and all the demons there. We watched those swans, cans held in our cold hands. Our breath plumed from the hot inside. Dark and light, warmth and cold, underworld and Eden.
Like Joyce or Virgil, MacLaughlin plays with a full rock band—casting a spell with her alliteration (“fat flakes,” “wide wings,” “glittering … galactic”), rhymes and slant rhymes (“low … snow,” “black … thwap”), assonance (“croaking … throats,” “inside … light”), and expertly varied pacing. Riding this sonic riff, she segues from the guttural cries of paired swans to the lovers’ midday tryst, inviting the reader to follow her run of associations. This is poetry disguised as prose, intelligently published by Godine’s imprint Black Sparrow. Even the paragraph break mimics a stanza break, staging a discursive leap from Cygnus, Leda, and alchemy charts to lovers drinking outdoors with indoor intentions, the shared landscape part of their elaborate foreplay.
December, MacLaughlin reminds us, is the month in which the most children are conceived, keeping obstetricians busy each August. So too the ashes of the yule log (the long trunk of an oak tree) were once spread on fallow fields to encourage a higher yield of crops, or fed to cattle to increase their fertility. What burns inside us in winter reappears, later, as varied forms of new life. And we mirror these physiological urges in our rituals and totems.
Even seasonal dread and anxiety, stirred by the dark and cold, were situated in stories long before we had “Seasonal Affective Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “We name our monsters,” MacLaughlin quips, trying to domesticate their wildness. Meanwhile, a polar night jet swirls from October through December, transporting blasts of cold air from the polar vortex and with it, she posits, a “salted fog of grief” over the Northern Hemisphere. What we physically feel has meteorological sources and mythological analogues.
Yet these myths have plasticity—and afterlives, including those for our own moment. “What’s death in a world of stories?” MacLaughlin asks, provocatively. “[M]aybe a door […] opens to the possibility that the ending’s not always the same.” She follows this fabulist impulse several times, imagining—for instance—what Persephone might have thought as she was whisked, an “unconsenting bride,” into the underworld by Hades. It is one of the many violent stories that populate classical mythology and the roots of patriarchal culture. Persephone’s trauma, and Demeter’s wild grief at the loss of her daughter, accounts for the annual shock of winter: we relive Demeter’s suffering. Cleverly, however, MacLaughlin keeps her version focused on Persephone herself as we plummet down a shaft of earth:
Hades, lord of the underworld, cracked the earth and snatched her, cold dry hand around the soft flesh of her belly. […] The flowers, Persephone thought as she plunged. She’d dropped the violets, the hyacinths, the lilies, and the flowers fell into the fracture, too, lost their color, curled into themselves, crumbled into dust.
It happened so fast! From flower picking in the sun to being queen in the land of the dead. It smells like ash in the underworld, like coffee grounds at the bottom of the bin, like nickels and plant rot and smoke. The breath of excess, the weary all-wrong breath of someone who saw too much the night before. All the surfaces are cold and the curtains-closed light gives every shadow a secret.
MacLaughlin’s retooling of the myth takes us into the victim’s displaced terror. Persephone frets about her bouquet—“the flowers fell into the fracture”—instead of “the cold dry hand around the soft flesh of her belly.” After she has lost her flower, in all senses, she sees that the underworld is an unkempt bachelor pad: a place of shadows, secrets, and frat-house basement smells. So, too, part of us is forced underground in winter or stays protectively dormant. Here, and elsewhere, the author rewrites more than the classical myth of winter: she attunes us to aspects of traditional stories kept peripheral or underground. What has been repressed, in Persephone’s testimony, will return.
Similarly, MacLaughlin animates folkloric figures—such as Krampus, from Central Europe, who seems to have been created to keep unruly children and would-be bad actors in line during the winter, with all its communal time indoors. On Krampusnacht (December 5), he was said to punish troublemakers with a birch switch and carry off misbehaving children in a dark sack, the foil of jolly Saint Nicholas. While Christianity tidied up (or recast) many pagan characters and traditions, folklore gives us a portrait, MacLaughlin argues, of the human animal enduring the stress of solstice, individually and collectively.
Indeed, what compels us to seek out thermal layers, weather stripping, frothed hot milk, sun lamps, holiday gatherings, and vacations in warmer climates, once presented our ancestors with a far more pressing question: “[W]ill we make it out of this alive?” MacLaughlin notes that by the late Roman empire, the festival of Saturnalia lasted a full week, marking the solstice and celebrating Saturn, the god of time and agriculture. It was a holiday of scheduled debauchery, feasting, gift giving, and revelry in which many social laws were loosened or suspended altogether. It was a letting go—of the nearly completed year and inhibitions. It was the office party from which you took a taxi home.
But “letting go,” as a phrase connoting license and bawdy (or boozy) abandon, is also about practicing a surrender to death, and it appears as the haunting last line in Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” in which the narrator’s experience of emotional extremis is compared to the phenomenon of hypothermia:
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
Dickinson’s dashes mimic the blanking of consciousness, a stunned acquiescence to loss and, by analogy, to extreme cold and wordlessness. There is perhaps no more extreme image of winter’s threat. Yet the silence of winter is also the germ of its enchantment, and MacLaughlin reminds us of our capacity for wonder, heightened in this season of quiet. She recalls studying a Christmas ornament as a young girl, feeling “everything charged with wish and potential,” and sledding a hillside near her family’s house, filled with fear and glee. That joy floods back, years later, while watching Into Great Silence, a 2005 documentary about Carthusian monks living in the Alps.
In one scene, the monks trek up an Alpine slope—for exercise or meditation, she reasons—until, one by one, all eight monks sit down and sled (or tumble) down the incline in their white robes, their boyish laughter pealing from the mountaintops. The solstice, as a season of downward skid and chthonic energies, reminds us all of our inescapable gravity but also, MacLaughlin suggests, the pure speed of joy and the ordinariness of the sublime.
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