March break and the clocks are about to go forward. The evenings and mornings are getting lighter. As we leave this heaving, teeter-totter of a winter: in like a lion, out like some drunken curmudgeon who over stays its welcome, I am reminded of my first Canadian one. Not the shock of the cold, I was braced for that, but the shock of the light.
Coming from England, I wasn’t used to winter’s brightness.
By brightness, I don’t mean those incredible sunny frigid days where the waters of Lake Ontario sublimate into a delicate haze, though those days are both figuratively and literally breath taking. I mean the hint of sun you get just above the horizon at 4pm on a January evening, or the fact that, on the school run at 7.45am, there are very few mornings where it is truly dark.
I grew up in the United Kingdom where winters are foggy, dank and dark; very, very dark. There were days when I would leave for work at 7.30am in the pitch black of night and eight or so working hours later leave the office at 5.30 pm once again in the night, the sun having set almost two hours before my departure. If I ate lunch at my desk I might not see the sun at all. And that was on the few days when the sun was out.
In North America we have the February Blahs, that short burst of ennui and discontent as we face yet another Alberta Clipper or Colorado or Texan storm system, driven west by the Jet Stream. In the United Kingdom we have SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, which, as the name suggests, brings a depression not just for the shortest month of the year, but for the whole season, from late fall through the spring. The darkness of the days reflected in a darkness of the soul.
Occasionally, in a supreme act of iniquity, the UK gets hit by both: darkness and a deep frigidity. The weather pattern will reverse and, instead of the (comparatively) warm damp Atlantic weather from the west, the winds shift to the East dragging the continental cold from the depths of Siberia.
Such a pattern occurred at the end of February this year. Nick-named “The Beast from the East”, the snow piled up and the temperature dropped in a country unprepared for either scenario. Here, in Toronto, we basked in a mini-spring with temperatures of +11°C, whilst the temperature in my childhood home of Norwich had dipped to -11°C with the wind-chill, an almost mirror image of the normal weather situation. The cold, ironically, caused by an unprecedented warming of the arctic stratosphere, which allowed warm air to flood north over Canada and pushed the polar vortex down south over Russia, where, like the government of that country, it wreaked havoc over much of the hemisphere.
Whenever the United Kingdom faces such weather thoughts inevitably turn to the unprecedented (in modern times) winter of 1962-63. The Big Freeze. The cold started in December 1962 as two glacial systems, what would now be called polar vortex, hit back to back. They brought huge (for the UK) amounts of snow and a deep freezing weather that lasted throughout January, then more ferocious snow storms in February. The thaw didn’t kick in until early March.
By that thaw, the event that I associate most with that period: fifty-five years ago, three years before I was born, had occurred. The poet Sylvia Plath took her own life on morning of February 11th, 1963.
Of all the poets I have read and studied, hers has affected me most. I was first introduced to her startling work while studying for my English Literature ‘A’-Level at the age of 16. I still read her work regularly, in that regard she is right up there with T.S. Eliot. Both required thought, but where Eliot had a wonderful dusty stuffiness that spoke of classics and encyclopaedia, Plath made both thought and language spark like a Catherine Wheel. Like Eliot there were allusions and references, but there was also a startling modernity to her poetry, a vivacious brutality:
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
Lady Lazarus – October 1962
In the final months of her life, Plath’s writing came in two incredible bursts: a period of freneticism that lasted from the end of September 1962 until the first week of November and produced a large number of the Ariel poems that would cement her reputation. Her most famous: Daddy and the afore mentioned Lady Lazarus were composed in this period. Then a lull, not bereft but quieter, until another final, intense burst in the Big Freeze of January and early February 1963. Then she was silenced. Her final two poems: Balloons and Edge were both drafted on 8th February.
Balloons in particular is now one of my favourites. The poem, implicitly addressed to her infant daughter Frieda, referencing her son, Nick, still a baby, is one of her most charming children’s poems. I think all parents have been there. We’ve wrestled with balloons, those happy, random stowaways. We’ve stuffed them gingerly into car trunks. We’ve prayed that little hands don’t let go of the string. We’ve watched, helpless, as a child inadvertently and unexpectedly pops one of them. Or jump when they do it on purpose. Then, at home, they remain like happy but unwanted guests for weeks or months. Plath’s poem shares that sense of happiness and fun and reminds us that, shining through the final nihilism she obviously thought, she could still reach some semblance of joy.
The last part of winter drifting into spring.
* The Munich Mannequins -Sylvia Plath