the tyranny of shoulds

Mar 11, 2021 poetry appreciation

I’ve been searching the interweb for a poem called ‘Delivery’ by Marie Howe, and can’t find it anywhere (if anyone has more luck, do please let me know). The search was not wasted, though, because I’ve discovered more of her poetry, and today I’ve got ‘The Moment‘ for you to… well… take a moment (sorry) to read.

I imagine we’ve all been exercising our capacity to rejoice in the small things of late (which, causing us joy, are therefore not small). Appreciative presence has been a good thing to cultivate. ‘A Moment’, though, is about more than that: the poem conjures that (fleeting) experience of being totally still and at peace: when we know ourselves to be good-enough, in the right place, at the right time; when we manage to get off our own case, and silence the droning or shouting self-critic; when there is nothing to be done or changed or improved and dashed at… when everything is just ok. The poem’s beautiful closing image of ‘the white cotton curtains hanging still’ has, somehow, an amazing quality of slo-mo: I imagine dust motes hanging in the shaft of sunlight, the sudden quiet outside (as when a film soundtrack goes silent): the in-a-moment access of peace, so precious in contrast to ‘[t]he whir of I should be, I should be, I should be’ (in which state I know I can spend far too much time).

Howe’s poem puts me in mind of Arnold’s ‘The Buried Life‘: very different to Howe’s in style and length, but also evoking a precious moment when everything stills, and is freed, and makes sense—when we ‘think [we] know/ The hills where [our] life rose,/ And the sea where it goes’. But where Arnold spends time considering what facilitates or hinders those moments when ‘a bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast’, Howe as it were drops us right into the moment itself; and this very effectively mimics the way these moments come upon us for no evident reason. Keats talks of how melancholy can fall ‘sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud‘. I think ‘The Moment’ celebrates the fact that joy, grace, peace, call it what you will, can fall sudden from heaven, too.

And thank goodness for it.

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