"The Confessions 2"...: "The Snow Man" has always seemed to me to be one of the classic (that is, rhetorically bottomless) Stevens poems. The poem would be much simpler if one could accurately say that it was talking about the "natural" desire (someone like De Man would call it a "temptation") to associate winter with death. But instead it's positioning a hypothetical subject, one who has already been described though this association, and is somehow a product of it, as the test case of these patterns of association: "One must have a mind of winter /" etc. Not only is this subject outfitted--ie. more or less "naturally" brought into the world-- with such a mind, but he's also the product of experience to boot: "And have been cold a long time" (and it's not clear how these two causalities are supposed to work together).
Anyway, so there's this complex conditional tense, which is also an example of the mystification (or we could just call it a condition of trying to know) that the poem is about--and this seamlessly frames, or actually conditions, the poem's own "inquiry" into the topic. There's a lot more to say, but that's a brief way in to the structural strangeness of the poem, which fascinated me.
At the same time I have to say that I don't really read Stevens with the same kind of intense excitement I used to (when I was an undergraduate, and maybe the first or so year of graduate school): though "The Snow Man" is certainly a great poem, I began to feel, on reading more of his work, that the epistemological dilemmas that his work as a whole explores (of which "The Snow Man" is one of the best examples) get replayed in a bit of an overly consistent way, so that sites (yachts in the Caribbean, strolls through New Haven etc.) become occasions for almost a priori thought. It's not that I felt that there was some immediately apprehensible empirical world that his work was somehow blind to, or irresponsible to, but that there wasn't a complex enough dialog between his quite excellent arsenal of philosophical concerns and the social, physical, historical particularities of...the world.
Obviously all of this wasn't on the tip of my tongue when I began deforming "The Snow Man." But it's part of the larger thick description. The poem was written in Bern, Switzerland, in a hotel room in 1999. Part of the trip was to help my father do research on an architect friend of his who'd lived in Zurich. So he was in the room, or perhaps in the shower--always a bizarre condition for writing (and I don't think that a single other of my poems, aside from The Confessions 1, was ever produced in a similar context--not that I could say what effect this had).
We had just visited Geneva. The poem was written in a notebook, by hand, and then (with some but not too much revision) copied onto a postcard and sent to my friend Bob Gamboa in San Francisco, a very close and excellent reader of Stevens. I mention this in part to say that I didn't have Stevens' poem directly in front of me; and was thinking more generally of its conditional rhetoric as a way to describe an actual place. The displacements that follow do "ground" the Stevens poem in a social and economic world, but I hope they do it more experimentally and absurdly than righteously.
I think that I chose that poem in that circumstance because I was curious about the problem of what kinds of pre-conditions an observer might need to meet in order not to fall into the traps that readily await perception--here of a foreign culture about which I knew little. And that for Stevens these pre-conditions are, of course, interestingly impossible to meet.