Paper Snowflakes

By Peter Halstead

December skies can sometimes bend
Like paper dolls to wrinkled sheets,
Snow clouds doubled end on end
So their opposite directions meet.

Just as scallops on a curtain
Sew dimensions into pleats,
The way the grey wind folds a pattern
Into layerings of sleet,

So we scissor shadows into night
And cut out profiles on the sill,
Twisting papers into light
To tie up evening's frozen grill.

From the border of a page
We trace out sketches, far-
Off shapes in thin, beginning stages,
Outlines of a snowflake, doll, or star

That, when crumpled, quartered, and unveiled,
Return like sun from last night's hail
To fill the room with solar flare
And line the walls with crystal air.


One night in Alta we were all making fold-out paper snowflakes and pasting them on the windows. I wanted to write something for Cathy about how leaves mold themselves, one on the other, like married people. Paper snowflakes accordion on each other like leaves falling on leaves, so, for the time being, I shifted my interests to the flakes.
It was one of those perfect Christmases, where the day, filled with flurries, seemed so close to the horizon, laden with snow, weighed down, sky touching earth like paper folded on paper. As skies produce emotions in excess of mere meteorology, so the upper sheet of a paper doll conceals many other dolls, many layers beneath it. Two people, then, doubled over as one, make a multitude of angels and angles when unfolded in retrospect, when reviewed at the end of the year. We ourselves are the angles where the opposite ends of the page come together (as they do in poetry) to create something out of holes, a construction more intricate than any of the scissor cuts that build it, a pond where one little cut on the top makes so many unconscious ripples under the surface, as dreams make facts over the years.
Before I wrote the poem, I thought of Donne's line, "worlds on worlds have showne," people imposed on each other like overlaid maps. I also thought of how a piece of paper, twisted and connected end to end, makes a Möbius strip, a two-sided object that has one continuous side, as two people twisted together make one. Then I thought of the reverse of a Möbius strip, an object with one continuous side that still has, at any given point, two sides, as people maintain their independence in marriage, despite twists. In fact, it is the folds, the twists in a curtain that give it dimension. So the problems we face give us depth. Nature itself twists one thing out of another, as we twist dolls out of sheets and poems out of sleet. Scissors and poems create out of paper and pages a single thing from many things. The more reduced or compact the paper, poem, or people, the more complex the final unfolding. We crumple language up for others to unfold, to unwrap at Christmas.
Although I thought all this, it only set the table and lit the candles for the poem itself, which mentions none of its background ambiance, as indeed Donne's line suggests ambiguities quite beyond the immediate sense of the phrase. Often words just as consciously mean the opposite of what they are saying. Wars are fought the way poems are written, more out of personal, hidden reasons than the rational afterthoughts of historians or critics. Sometimes I mean something else entirely and have to write eight poems before I say it. I love these mistakes, as if the world dictated rhyme and reason, occasionally awarding me the verb.
In reading this poem, the inner rhymes will sound like end rhymes, which is a useless attempt to imitate verbally the close-knit structure of snowflakes. Poems are after all only paper snowflakes.

Christmas, 1986