The title of Where Are the Snows, Kathleen Rooney’s new, award-winning collection of poetry, serves as both question and commentary to start off the book. Where are the snows, anyway? Climate change has taken them. Is it too late to make changes, to save democracy, and to preserve the Earth? Rooney isn’t sure, but she certainly explores it in these funny, sad poems.
Rooney dedicates Where Are the Snows to the future: nebulous and almost hopeful, a reminder that (maybe) there will be a future after all, and a reason to keep on keeping on, or even to try for something better. But how on earth do we get somewhere better? Here, at least, we will traverse roads sacred and profane, sometimes mixing both. We will look out the window at COVID and try to stand against fascism.
In “To Replicate the Sacrifice of Christ’s Journey into the Desert for 40 Days,” which is both hilarious and sad, Rooney dips into the ongoing horror of the world. “This year I gave up hope for Lent,” she writes, which seems like a pretty reasonable thing to have given up on over these past few years, for “We are under siege. We are short of sages. / It’s hard to be an atheist in such an age, so why not make up your own theology?”
All art is political, from Caravaggio and his chiaroscuro portraits of sex workers standing in for saints to Rooney’s Where Are the Snows—and Rooney leans into the politics, creating a work that is simultaneously deeply rooted in the hellscape of COVID-19 and also timeless, defiant, and tender poetry for the ages. In “The Production and Consumption of Goods and Services,” for instance, she takes on capitalism, for which we must sacrifice but which doesn’t care in the least about us: “Shut up: my comeback to Mammonites demanding blood sacrifice to the death cult. / Why should I die for the economy when he would never do the same for me?” (A later mention of a guillotine seems rather apropos in this poem about a brutal and unseen market, too.)
Rooney plays with words throughout Where Are the Snows, little flashes of humor and style emerging from heavy material. In “Pedestrian Access,” for instance, she writes, “A morning constitutional, mourning the constitution.” She pokes at place names, moves through seasons in Chicago, marks the passage of time by weather and people on the street, carries old Catholic teachings as she goes about her business.
Indeed, faith, both loss and presence and aftereffects, are a constant theme in Where Are the Snows. Rooney may no longer have any faith, but, as she writes in “One Authorized to Perform the Sacred Rites,” that doesn’t mean she doesn’t sometimes wish: “My faith remains gone. And yet my ears strain. A longing to hear someone in the / beyond explaining. Follow the sound of my voice. Rejoice when you get to the end / of the hallway.”
Where Are the Snows is darkly funny and tenderly beautiful and often downright haunting, both a marker of this fraught time in national and world history and a bit of timeless art. Rooney’s explorations range from faith and its vestiges—very familiar ones to me, as I grew up around lapsed Catholics—to explorations of the structural powers of capitalism and faith and politics, all of them tangling together. And, somehow, she manages to end Where Are the Snows on a note of hope. No mean feat for such a collection as this.
Where Are the Snows is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.