When the avalanche came down on us
it did not come down on us in a holy light,
flickering between this dimension and another
ultraviolet one. It did not shower its sermon upon us
in meaning-ful, vowel-less sounds like stalactites.
It did not come down on us at all. It came up, up, over
and around us; all around us in a pall. It met our bodies
in a hail, hail, hail, not a wall but heavier than water
if we were sitting at the bottom of the sea. We heard it crack
and sizzle on the ground. It filled the valley like a steam engine;
its clotted vapour urging forward to some terminus beyond us.
We watched it soar and could not inhale enough air between
the screams. Our lungs made fists. I thought of lips freezing shut
once and for all, the uncommon cold, no human fingers to close
the lids nor chance of rescuing the bodies, stiff as candy canes
striped red, white, red, white, grey. Your hands were fifty feet away,
your mind another hundred. My cries could not contend with this parade
of physics. You were wordless, as if the snow were slow motion surf
or a weir devouring its atmosphere. Was it fluid dynamics, glaciology
or meteorology you surveyed? There was something of the shock
wave about it, no doubt about that. The space between us
prolonged. I should never have collapsed in love with a physicist.
I saw the fort my brother built from bales of hay, whose tunnel
should never have been trusted. Oh, to make a hay citadel!
‘When the fields are white with daisies,’ my father would have said.
The ice wave rose and darkness fell. I doubted how well my elbows
would act as pick-axes, if it were to be a catacomb. I had once been told
that knowing which way is up is key: that the whiteness is homogeneous;
that people dig madly, burying themselves in the immortal white. I panicked:
would he have a better chance than I, with his gall; his practicality?
No, the snow was nothing like confetti. It would not applaud any small boys
or any small girls, no matter how insolent. We braced ourselves, finally.
Later, you described the form of a loose snow avalanche as a teardrop;
born of some great disparity between the tensile gift of snow layers
and their compressive heft. The angle of repose was soft, you allowed,
as we stood in the catchment area, making observations and vowel sounds.
LISTEN to ‘Avalanche’ by Caoilinn Hughes
The poems that garnered Caoilinn Hughes the 2012 Patrick Kavanagh Award form the basis of her first book, Gathering Evidence, which is published conjointly by Carcanet Press (UK) and Victoria University Press. Poems from the collection also won the 2013 Cúirt New Writing Prize and the Trocaire / Poetry Ireland Competition. Born in Galway, Ireland, Hughes completed her BA and MA degrees at the Queen's University of Belfast and subsequently moved to New Zealand in 2007. She is in the final months of a PhD in English (Fiction) at Victoria University of Wellington.