“Snow” (1999) is a free verse poem by American musician David Berman (1967-2019). “Snow” is Berman’s most recognized poem, as he is mostly remembered as a musician from the band Silver Jews. “Snow” is the first poem in Berman’s only poetry collection, Actual Air (1999). The poem uses a stream-of-consciousness form, and it tells a loose narrative through somewhat connected images and distinct breaks in time and space. Because of the poem’s surreal and loose structure, it has no set meaning; instead, the poem’s strength comes from its mystery and the feeling of distance and coldness it elicits in the reader. That said, the poem does have strong religious symbolism, and it connects to the book of Genesis in its themes of death, brotherhood, and loss of innocence.
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David Berman was born in 1967 in Virginia. His parents’ divorce when he was a child deeply affected him, and he had a contentious relationship with his father, Richard, whose work as a conservative lobbyist put him at odds with the more liberal David. This conflict with his father lasted into adulthood, as even as late as 2009, Berman quit his popular band to focus on combating what he described as his father’s evil (Michaels, Sean. “Silver Jews Reveal Cause of Split: ‘My Father Is a Despicable Man … a Human Molestor.’” The Guardian, 26 Jan. 2009.).
Berman lived with depression from an early age, and in response to it, he began experimenting with drugs. His drug use would continue throughout his life, and his battle to stay sober led to many changes in his personal and professional life before his death.
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Berman began playing music and writing poetry in high school, and in college he formed his first band. Upon graduating, he moved to New Jersey and formed Silver Jews, his most popular band. Silver Jews released their most acclaimed album, American Water, in 1996, and the album established Berman as a respected lyricist. Publishing his poetry three years later only added to his reputation.
In the following years, though, Berman began experimenting with hard drugs, and his health and career declined. He attempted suicide twice, spent time in rehab, and experienced several personal and professional troubles. Berman retired from music in 2009 and lived a reclusive life away from the spotlight for the next decade.
In 2019, Berman released his first album in over a decade, Purple Mountains, in response to his divorce from his wife and financial difficulties. Though the album resulted in critical acclaim, Berman took his own life a month after releasing the album. He was 52 at the time of his death.
Berman, David. “Snow.” 1999. Library of Congress.
The poem begins with the speaker walking through a field with his younger brother Seth. Using a conversational style, the speaker says he pointed to a place where “kids […] made angels in the snow” (Line 2), and for some reason, he tells his brother the marks in the snow were made by actual angels who, while falling from heaven, were shot “and dissolved when they hit the ground” (Line 4). When the little brother asks who shot the angels, the speaker says, “a farmer” (Line 5).
The scene then changes to the two brothers standing on a frozen lake. Here, the little brother asks why the farmer shot the angels, and the speaker, after admitting he doesn’t know why he was continuing this story, says it was because the angels were on the farmer’s property (Line 10).
The next stanza shifts time and space again. The speaker compares a snowy day to a room, then the scene moves to the present day where the speaker is outside shoveling snow next to an unnamed neighbor. The speaker again compares the snowy day to a room “with the walls blasted to shreds and falling” (Line 14), and then he and the neighbor continue to shovel in silence.
The poem concludes with another shift in time, as the final line returns to the scene with the speaker and his brother. The brother asks why the angels were on the farmer’s property, but the speaker does not answer; instead, the poem ends.