Western Wind

February 6, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: David Yezzi on “Western Wind” by V. Penelope Pellizon

“Western Wind,” the fifteenth-century lyric that came down to us though sixteenth-century musical settings, is my favorite poem about the weather:

Westron wynde, when wylle thow blow,
             The smalle rayne down can rayne?
Cryst, yf my love were in my Armys
             And I yn my bed a gayne!

I love it without fully understanding it. The lover is separated—by the unpropitious weather itself, it seems—from the beloved. “Cryst”: is it an invocation or an oath? Harshly secular, plaintively spiritual, both? “The smalle rain” (as opposed to a pelting downpour) suggests mildness and regeneration, as does the western wind itself—the gentle Zephyrus.

I wonder what Gwendolyn Fairfax would have made of the poem: “Whenever people talk to me about the weather,” she tells her suitor, “I always feel quite certain that they mean something else”—wise words in courtship and in poetry. The easy wind and light rain are both wholly themselves and also much more than that: they suggest, through their absence, the harsh emotional weather in which the lover currently lives.

In V. Penelope Pelizzon’s mournful “Western Wind” the separation of the lovers hasn’t happened yet, but the harsh weather has already arrived. The poem begins in thunder and in rain. The lovers lie in darkness. The poem describes what the older poem only implies: a “fresh” (i.e. strong) breeze that disturbs the foliage. From here the poem works out variations on a theme: presence as a stay against absence; awake together but in darkness, united by pending separation. Then a balm, like the small rain, comes in the phrase “ a little longer.” For now, they share the same weather (the same bed, the same time zone, the same hemisphere). It is a valediction admitting mourning (admitting morning).

Here is another of my favorite poems about the weather, a haiku by Onitsura (1661–1738):

It is nice to read
news that our spring rain also
visited your town.

I’ve always found this sentiment affecting. Reading Pelizzon’s poem, now I know why. There is comfort in experiencing the same weather (both meteorological and emotional) as another person, yet sharing it over a great distance only underscores the lack. How much nicer it would be, how much more temperate, to share the same bed again.

David Yezzi’s most recent books of poems are Birds of the Air (2013) and, forthcoming in 2018, Black Sea, both from Carnegie Mellon. He is chair of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and editor of The Hopkins Review.

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