portion of the artwork for Dennis Mahagin's essay

An Examination of  “Snowman”
Dennis Mahagin

At once heartbreaking and transcendent, the classic poem “Snowman” by Sean Farragher puts on full display the manifold facets of the man’s gift. To quote one of the lines in the poem, Sean’s talent in fact shows up “in crisp pentangles, cut jewels glistened in skin …”

Stephen Dobyns, in one of his many excellent craft essays, posits a kind of formula for a successful poem, prescribing equal parts intellect, emotion, and structure. It seems to me that “Snowman” succeeds on all these literary levels. The triptych structure, for example, is a perfect device for the poet to move inside and all about time, without sacrificing narrative integrity, or an elegiac tone.

In “Snowman,” Sean lays out the first act as a pristine premise, or promise—with inventive imagery reminiscent of Randall Jarrell, a rhythm and assonance that is straight out of Roethke, plus a confessional thematic flow that evokes Robert Lowell. Still, the voice in “Snowman” is at all times pure Farragher, inimitably juxtaposing a lucid, warm eroticism against images that are decidedly wintry, yet before we as readers can catch our collective breath, at the outset of Part 1, Farragher tells us—“that Winter ended.”

In Part 2, we are informed that the speaker is in fact pursuing the process of “writing”—which introduces another dimension of meta poetics to the page. The longing and loss that the poem deals with frankly and tenderly (and that we as readers feel issuing from the speaker’s pen and soul as he tries to make sense of his experience) echoes in lines such as:

“I crawl to the Hudson, to stare at ice sheets …”

By Part 3, the reader is more than ready to transcend, if that possibility is in the cards—and Sean Farragher delivers, offering as a parting shot the image of a woodsman carving out a luge-like chute “into ruts for boots and sleighs …”

And we are carried away, too—right up to that absolutely marvelous closing line, a pure Crackerjacks prize—and surprise—of simplicity mirroring a kind of universal duplicity.

“… and often lies.”

Where did that come from?

To my mind simply one of the best endings, ever.

I could wax essayistic for hours about the power of this poem which haunts me ever more with each re-reading. I could talk about Farragher’s consummate craft, his one-of-a-kind but spot-on word choices (describing streetlights, for instance, in the first section of “Snowman” as “roots of thin steel beasts, watching us from their berth …”) yet suffice it to say that by the end of this poem, Snowman has in fact become an arch character, ineluctably larger than life, moon-faced, luminescent, and wise—

“silk and string, pearl buttons from the Snowman’s coat …”

As poem (and arch character), Snowman leaves an indelible imprint upon the mind of the reader as surely as Sean’s delightfully yearning image of “red boots cut in clean snow.” The arc of the doomed love affair as snowmelt—regret, longing, and pain “returning to that Hudson.”

Sean knew; and knows. He “speaks for an ancient snow-beast …”

“Snowman” is an amazing poem. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate it.

Sean Farragher, 1973

One winter
my wife and I
built a snowman
of ice and string

the melting snow
bled into the Hudson
the roots of thin
steel beasts watched us
from their berth

the haze in a yellow arc
shivered with glass eyes—
the red wail of sirens
bit into our clasped hands

that night in our bed
her fingers with their
many silvered rings
sought my hair
then my tongue
grew into her bristle,
into slipping teeth

Our baby’s hand
reached through the womb,
and that winter ended.

Five years
I write this
letter to her
old voice in my skin

I tie her plaid scarf
to my wrist,
I watch smoke
spring between red/blue gables

that Hudson,
that old oak shakes
the hung dead from arms and canyons
of snow belting ice in my hair

I remember black stones
in the Snowman’s face;
a scarf and a crooked hat
we set between the twigs

We hugged snow in our shirts,
wrestled with our wet skin until
the ice kiss rubbed us
to a silent stare,
as blood blew my tongue
to her blood;
our hair shone in crisp pentangles,
cut jewels glistened in skin

I remember those
dry hands that leapt out
from my hair.
I crawl to the Hudson,
to stare at ice sheets,
and I play with the photo
of her face that haunts my wall.

In my window
a woodsman
bangs his shovel
hard into ice
to cut steps home,
to pack the snow
into ruts for boots
and sleighs,
to gray and melt
with cinders and mud,
then to drift
to that Hudson

At my desk
I search inside the wooden box
where I keep silk and string;
pearl buttons from the Snowman’s coat.

I remember
the holes her red boots cut
in clean snow.

I speak for
an ancient snow-beast
I can no longer
rub into magic

One winter
my wife and I
built a snowman
of ice and string
from patches of talk
and often lies.

Table of Contents

FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 40 | Spring 2013