The Sacrality of a Moment

Years ago I read an essay by Annie Dillard in the Atlantic.  I wish I could remember the title, the date.  But the point is one of her lines (and Dillard’s essays were always poetic) has stayed with me all these years.  The line went something like this: I felt like a bell just before it is struck.  She was standing in a field–a simple act–when she experienced seeing in a new way.  When I first read this line I immediately flashed to a collection of small bells, Indian made, claw-shaped on the bottom where they rested, owned by my grandmother–from where I have no idea.  Mom’s house (and we called her mom, my grandmom) was modest–an understatement–with a sparse collection of “exotica,” like painted landscapes and a glass candy dish shaped like a heart.  As a girl I played with the bells, but delicately, orchestrating the lightest stroke, desiring the most lovely tempered sound, the feel of holding before hearing.

Lines can do that, echo throughout the years.  And as a poet (I hesitate to use the word), I am in the echo business.  What I mean is I want to discover how poems ring with little resonances–words chosen for their ability to suggest, to vibrate with feeling–heart, body, soul–what I would call the sacrality of a moment.

This is not the preachy kind of sacredness.  At least that is not my intent.  It’s more a slight of hand, a fleeting meaning, the surprise and transformation that occurs when one discovers the marginalized, the forgotten, the ignored.  It’s about the small things in our lives that pass unnoticed, that hold stories unheard.

In that way, A Habit Landscape includes narrative poems–poems with little stories, maybe funny, maybe sad, but often with what poet Billy Collins calls “a turn” in the poem.  For me this turn may be both a culmination and a window, always a bit surprising, as sacred moments are.  In one poem about experiences in Monsaraz Spain the concluding line takes this turn.  The speaker in the poem is describing the magical experiences of that village in Spain where, as a tourist, he/she takes note of the lead ram, his bell leading his flock, an early morning bellwether.  Purchasing a leather strung bell as a memento, the speaker remarks of the resonances of those moments:

Cast in memories not our own

our wonder echoes like a clapper

before the next strike

down the ancient hills.

In another poem the speaker describes the simple experience of watering a newly blooming iris as holy, a transformative moment in which “the supplicant turns steward/ in this gesture of love.”

I think we poets write to discover such moments and we write to discover how to hold and share them.

  • Genneil Curphey
    Posted at 13:36h, 01 May Reply

    You capture the essence of poetry in a way. I feel but can’t put into words. Thank you for that. Your poetry is full on of living moments and small surprises that I sometimes recall as my own personal memory or at least as a bystander.

  • Ann King
    Posted at 22:58h, 01 May Reply

    I love the notice you take in small things that to many would seem insignificant. What a gift you have for observation! These days our lives become so rushed and we miss the best gifts in the rushing. This reminds me of one of the early Father’s – I think Father Roger – who spent much of his life as a dishwasher in a monastery among pots and pans. He said that every act is a holy act.

    • admin
      Posted at 16:03h, 06 May Reply

      Ani, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I so value your thoughts and observations. Precious.

  • Gail Hovey
    Posted at 13:23h, 06 May Reply

    Shelley, this is lovely. It immediately brings to mind a book we just finished reading, POETRY UNBOUND, by Padraig O Tuama. Do you know it? It’s “50 Poems to Open the World.” His comments about each poem remind me of what you have written here. Remind of that poems are not meant to be read just once and fast! They require us to slow down, to pay attention to what the poet if doing. I too appreciate that line from Annie Dillard!

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