“Ah! Comme la neige a neigé!” might be one of the most
perfect lines in poetry. A sentence of five monosyllables
that stops cold on a word become its double. It belongs
to Émile Nelligan and was written in 1898, right before
the Québécois poet was locked away in an asylum
where he died, alone and forgotten, forty-three years later.
What is it about that simple line that makes me happy?
How it swoons. How the exclamation it opens with — “Ah!” —
gives us a poet in thrall to the world as it is being felt.
How it conjures up an entire weather system just with the trick
of repeating “neige” twice, making the word both noun
and verb, and loading our senses with an extra syllable.
Six words about sky disbursing snow. Six words that build
on themselves, recreating the plenitude they describe.
Few translators have understood that.
“Ah! How the snow falls free!” was Fred Cogswell’s rendering.
“It has snowed, oh, how it has snowed!” — Clarissa Aykroyd.
But I think my friend Marc di Saverio translated it best:
“O how the snow has snowed!” See how that flurry of o’s
calls forth, through assonance, memories of zero visibility,
the air overwhelmed? See, too, how the line captures
the way a word can change, not unlike a snow-capped street,
and remain the same? This is as much about language
as it is about how clusters of tiny ice crystals in clouds
join until they become heavy enough to fall to the ground.
It’s also a line that understands the best kind of snow
is not the powdery stuff that drifts in wind, but the kind
that melts around the edges and sticks together to produce
big, thick flakes, des flocons de neige, good for snowballs.
Thus I proclaim it, on this day Anno Domini, no better line exists,
make official and binding a marriage of image and sound
that has me feel like a kid again, staring up into whiteness
tumbling relentlessly from out of nowhere and landing, exactly,
everywhere; or sitting in a warming-up car, wipers going;
or how my sister and I loved to put wet tea towels on the line
and bring them back in, frozen, snowed over with snow.