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Poetry Moment: Gregory Djanikian and 'When I First Saw Snow'

WPSU Poetry Moment Djanikian
Poet Gregory Djanikian

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “When I First Saw Snow” by Gregory Djanikian.

Born in Egypt, Gregory Djanikian came to the United States when he was eight years old, spent his boyhood years in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and now lives in Narberth on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Until he retired in 2015, he was for many years Director of Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Djanikian is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently Sojourners of the In-Between.

“When I First Saw Snow” pays fitting tribute to the holiday this week. In the poem, the speaker recounts his first sighting of snow and first Christmas in America, offering yuletide images and iconic musical references that conjure an upbeat, nostalgic air. But there’s another tone in the poem the poet skillfully interweaves. The poem’s opening lines quickly sketch the family’s recent migration and their economic and political precarity. This family story plays as the poem’s background music, highlighting the allegorical nature of the Christmas story: the importance of offering welcome to the stranger and of extending generosity, of spirit and deed, to those in need.

Here’s—

When I First Saw Snow

Bing Crosby was singing “White Christmas”
on the radio, we were staying at my aunt’s house
waiting for papers, my father was looking for a job.
We had trimmed the tree the night before,
sap had run on my fingers and for the first time
I was smelling pine wherever I went.
Anais, my cousin, was upstairs in her room
listening to Danny and the Juniors.
Haigo was playing Monopoly with Lucy, his sister,
Buzzy, the boy next door, had eyes for her
and there was a rattle of dice, a shuffling
of Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens.
There were red bows on the Christmas tree.
It had snowed all night.
My boot buckles were clinking like small bells
as I thumped to the door and out
onto the grey planks of the porch dusted with snow.
The world was immaculate, new,
even the trees had changed color,
and when I touched the snow on the railing
I didn't know what I had touched, ice or fire.
I heard, “I'm dreaming ...”
I heard, “At the hop, hop, hop ... oh, baby.”
I heard “B & 0” and the train in my imagination
was whistling through the great plains.
And I was stepping off,
I was falling deeply into America.

That was “When I First Saw Snow” by Greg Djanikian.
Thank you for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.

Shara McCallum was the 2021-22 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.
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