Of all the poems written by Edward Kamau Brathwaite over his long and quite productive writing life, ‘The Day the First Snow Fell’ is one of his finest moments. Brathwaite, who died this past week, has written many monumental poems, long and short, experimental, and traditional, but mostly, he has written poems that reflect his life’s experiences. ‘The Day the First Snow Fell’ falls squarely into that category.
When I first heard him read poetry back in the early 90’s, he took time to explain the nature of the poem and what he was channeling — his life. But before I comment on that, here’s the poem in full, as it originally appeared in 1958, in The Caribbean Quarterly:
The poem later appears in his 1975 book, Other Exiles and does not contain the stanza splits. That book is dominated by the travel in Brathwaite’s life, from Barbados to Europe, and back. He was studying and writing during those years, and as the book jacket notes, it is his “first collection of shorter poems written over a period of 25 years.”
According to Brathwaite, on the night I saw him read, the poem is all about when he was in England, and he saw and experienced snow for the first time. Being from the Caribbean, his life did not know snow, and so, as he noted, it was hard to describe.
But Brathwaite related as well that it was also about leaving his home in Barbados and entering studies in England in an environment that had few individuals from the African diaspora. In a 1975 review of the collection, Velma Pollard writes that the poem “exhibits a striking clarity of image and power of surprise achieved by yoking unusual pictures together.”
Pollard’s description is perfect considering the story behind the poem. A West Indian poet uses the experience of snow in England to describe his feelings of first coming to the country and feeling a sense of racial and cultural isolation despite his genius, accomplishments and promise. The book brings the literature of the ‘West Indian Archipelago’ to life and foreshadows great works to come from Brathwaite.
Years later after I heard the poem that night, a friend told me he was traveling to Wales. Knowing that Wales is a country full of poetry shops, I told him if he saw any books by Edward Kamau Brathwaite, do buy them and I would pay. He came back with two books and one was Other Exiles, which he signed for me years later when I saw hjim read again.