How do you map a landscape of grief onto an ever-changing seasonal landscape? In Megan Merchant’s elegiac fourth collection Before the Fevered Snow (Stillhouse Press, 2020), the poet invokes the natural world as the setting for a personal history she revisits through ruminations on marriage and motherhood, as well as darker themes of depression, dementia, and death. Many of these poems are in direct communion with nature, where Merchant searches for answers to human grief. Here, the dreamlike landscape is haunted by the memories of horses and spring snow, where owls call to children and ravens lurk in the feathery shadows of pines. Merchant traces the genealogy of memory through a shadowy America fraught with danger yet bursting with moments of unexpected beauty, where the minuscule threat of a spider coexists with the abstract peril of death and loss.
Before the Fevered Snow captures the slow progression of seasons, from autumnal decay to the snow-hushed winter landscape to the delirious confusion of a spring fever. The months often bleed into each other, as Merchant writes in “Nesting”: “It is spring, but we are still wintering a garden of colors and shapes.” These are poems that hover between the everyday—ravens, seeds, bones, feathers, falling leaves—and the surreal, such as the opening lines of “Murmuration,” where the speaker recounts “A dream that I sew wings from eyelashes taken off / the dead, pack honey into bones for the long walk.” Merchant evokes the regenerative power of the natural world as a source for her own healing, the dusting of April snow on the morning a fever lifts, and the dewdrops blanketing a tangle of branches under a bird’s nest. In “Bleuet,” a poem reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s book-length meditation on the same name and color, the speaker unpacks the dual meanings of “America the bluetiful,” its potential for both the sorrow of cold rain and the joy of a bright cobalt sky.
Merchant instills a stunning beauty into even the darkest poems, often returning to her mother’s struggle with dementia and subsequent death. In “Boneyard,” the opening poem of the collection, “a pack of coyotes chewed a raven / until black feathers blessed the ground.” In evocative imagery suffused with color, she recounts that “My mother has blue days that are blanketed with forgetting.” When the speaker returns to a past lover in the achingly intimate “Salt Ring,” she writes “My skin—a season of subtle grey and violets.” Later, Merchant contrasts a scene of her son pointing a gun-shaped piece of wood at a younger child on the playground with her grief at the methodical nature of his lockdown drills in school. She reflects on the risk that the outside world poses toward a young child with special needs, but the all-encompassing joy of their lives together permeates throughout the poems in this collection.
Merchant’s narrative voice weaves between the crystallized past and the vivid present, a temporal shift that transcends memory and loss. In “I Will Explain,” the poet transitions from her mother’s forthcoming death—”The hospice workers say only hours might / be left. No one knows for sure”—to the coincidence of their births: “I read that I was an egg in her body, / when she was tucked and growing / in her mother.” Later, Merchant returns to a Google Earth image of her mother feeding the horses, a moment frozen in time that captures the days before her slow decline from dementia. The photograph becomes a portal into an alternate reality where somewhere on earth, her mother might still be living.
“This year will be better,” Merchant presciently declares at the start of “Turning Into Another Year,” a sentiment that was echoed by many during the last dark days of 2020. Although Before the Fevered Snow was released in April, close to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Merchant’s preoccupation with isolation, memory, grief, and the natural world was experienced by many during the early days of quarantine. As the seasons change and sorrow abates, the speaker in “I am told the dream can only be interpreted by the dreamer” says “I remember that waiting / is an anticipation of grief,” a meditation on the paradoxical nature of this in-between state. Although waiting is often accompanied by anxiety for the future, the period can also provide space for reflection and renewal. Merchant’s poems strike a hopeful note for the coming months, reminding readers that the snow will melt and better days will arrive. The striking and precise “Elegy” closes the collection, a four-line poem that perfectly encapsulates the nature of rebirth: “Her horses have shed their coats—they dream / of bones rising under the fevered snow. / Flyaway hairs float into a stream of light / like dust, or skin cells, like touch.”
Eliza Browning is a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she studies English and art history. Her work has previously appeared in Rust + Moth, Vagabond City Lit, Contrary Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly, among others. She is a poetry editor for EX/POST Magazine and reads poetry for COUNTERCLOCK Journal.