I spent some time looking for the edition my grandmother read to me as a child, but I eventually realized that whatever she read from – probably a collection of Andersen's stories – had no pictures. They were all in my mind. This astonishes me now, because I can see it all: the girl's blue and black feet, the windows shagged with ice, the Christmas goose and the tree lit, dangerously, by a hundred wax candles, the way those images flicker in the match-light, guttering against the alley wall.
I don't speak Danish, but there was a Danish-thrum under the speech of my grandparents, especially my grandfather, Danish speaker himself before his mother died of childbed fever when he was six. Then the Danish went out of the home, along with so much else. Even in translation, which will likely be the only way I experience this story, I can hear the edges of that lost language, the lost mother, the lost childhood. My grandfather's loss was communicable, in a collection of swallowed consonants and a half-remembered Danish grammar, even though as a child I knew nothing of this. I would beg my grandmother to read this to me again, weeping, and she would laugh the way she does, short and with her hands flung out, like an offering. And she would read again and I would see again and weep.
When I read this book today, sitting on the floor of my son's room, surrounded by the Christmas books I spend a quarter of an hour digging out of his bookshelves, I nearly wept again. I'm not going to over-analyze this story, as is my wont, because it's talismanic, strangely pre-linguistic for me, even though it's obviously transmitted using nouns and verbs and the usual set of descriptors. My hand pulled this down with the Grinch and The Night Before Christmas, because my body remembered, though my mind did not, that this is a Christmas story, even if it ends in the death of a child and not the birth.
This story makes me think of two poems, because poetry gets at the concision and expansiveness that this tale evokes for me. The first is Wallace Stevens's
“The Snow Man”. The other is Emily Dickinson's
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes". I will leave them for you, with a short laugh, as an offering.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes
After great pain, a formal feeling comes --
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs --
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round --
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought --
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone --
This is the Hour of Lead --
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow --
First -- Chill -- then Stupor -- then the letting go --