Review of Megan Merchant’s Before the Fevered Snow
In Megan Merchant’s fourth collection of poetry, Before the Fevered Snow, the poet holds us close through experiences of loss, marriage, and motherhood. Merchant is the caretaker and the gardener of her words, tending to each emotional moment that blossoms and decays as her exquisite book unfolds.
As we enter Part I, the poet brings us into her natural world with a feeling of suspended hope. The setting of “Hollow” is the speaker’s porch where “the hummingbird mum sits on her babies,” and her husband “fiddles with a banjo;” his playing, “a fringe of nerves firing, like spring.” The speaker “hangs sugar-water from a red string, the plastic/flowers, loud yellow-always in bloom,” and readers sense the buzzing impatience beneath this artificial stillness. When the speaker later sinks into “a bath of fennel,” swallowing seeds in hopes of one taking root in her belly, we are cast under the poet’s spell, drinking in this magical elixir, waiting to be filled with what comes next.
In the subsequent poem, “Nesting,” the speaker has become the Mother bird, but not in the way we first anticipated. She is tending to her own Mother “asleep under a weighted blanket.” Though “it is spring,” the speaker is “wintering a garden of shapes and colors”—her Mother’s memory, fading. We leave Part I anticipating the “wince (that will) split into every oncoming joy” –foretold to us in “I Will Explain”—which the reader feels in their gut, a testament to Merchant who has whittled down every experience into something beautiful and solid.
The titular poem, “Before the Fevered Snow,” is planted in Part II, wherein the speaker states, “Before the fevered snow,/there was an eyelet and bright button,/hair snipped from sleeping others/and wed around my finger/You cut it with your tongue,” and readers feel the promised “wince.” We resonate with the first flush of love that needs no words as she watches her lover’s “chest rise/As if with filament,” preparing us for the “fever” to burn off as the poem dwindles. A lasting final image of an April snowfall leaves a chill upon an otherwise hopeful season.
By Part III, Merchant’s social commentary takes the Mother bird motif to a new level by appealing to every mother’s fear of raising children in an era of school shootings. In “Witness,” we watch the speaker’s son pick up “a split of wood/shaped like a gun” and pretend to shoot at a park full of children. “Only months ago,/my boy carried a wounded/moth to my attention-a shred in the eyelet pattern,” she reflects, and we nod in solidarity. As the speaker’s attention turns to a small girl walking in front of a moving swing, our hairs stand on end. “This is how she will learn,/From impact,” says the girl’s Mother, leaving us paralyzed and helpless. The scene then scatters along with ravens in the sky “spreading miles between their dark bodies,” as if an actual shot has been fired.
A sense of encroaching danger lives on in the pages of Part IV. In “Difference,” the speaker pierces our awareness with the progression of disease – both in nature and in the body. She compares a monsoon rain to downward facing scissors that are just as dangerous, when her Mother, we presume, “takes them with her/hands…and tries/to cut the whites of her nails,” an image that nearly divides us in two. To further deepen our understanding, the speaker reminds us how nothing is deemed a threat until it is upon our doorstep. “We say renewing the forest,/and outbreak, until (the beetles) overtake/the one closest to our house.” At which point, we use the word “death.” This observation, in turn, feels like a hand-delivered letter from the poet, meant to awaken our social consciousness.
Another, perhaps more sanguine, view of the changing nature of words is revealed in “A Thousand Words Are Worth a Picture.” We find the speaker “cull(ing)” words “scattered in the hay bales…/swished into the mare’s tail like sun.” She places them in mason jars, so she has something for her Mother to pick from when trying to recall her name. “I will not mind canter, reins, paddock./There were years of you where I never had a name/anyhow.” And we are reminded of a line from Part I: “What is there to say to loss that is not also a greeting.” Readers cannot help but feel gratitude toward the poet after reading this poem, for she has given us a new language for our own experiences of loss.
It seems fitting to close with a nod to “Elegy,” the final, brief poem in the collection. Along with the speaker, we watch horse hairs “float in a stream of light/like dust/or skin cells, like touch” Omitting the period to that sentence seems essential since the poet leaves this stanza without a final punctuation mark. Like dust suspended in air and time, these poems will remain with us, lingering in our subconscious, taking root inside our dreams.
Our reviewer: Elizabeth Newdom teaches writing and literature courses at a community college in Frederick, MD. Her personal essays have appeared in online publications, such as The Week, Motherwell, The Manifest-Station, and Mothers Always Write, and in the literary print journal, Mom Egg Review. Elizabeth also writes about the beauty and grit of middle age on her blog, The Astronaut Wife.
The Author: Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott, AZ with her husband and two children. She holds an M.F.A. degree in International Creative Writing from UNLV and is the author of three full-length poetry collections with Glass Lyre Press: Gravel Ghosts (2016), The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, 2017), Grief Flowers (2018), four chapbooks, and a children’s book, These Words I Shaped for You (Philomel Books). Her latest book, Before the Fevered Snow, was released in April 2020 with Stillhouse Press. She was awarded the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera, the 2018 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize, and most recently, second place in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is an Editor at Pirene’s Fountain and The Comstock Review. You can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet.