Here Shabbiness, Here Halo

October 12, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Cate Lycurgus
on “Midafternoon” by Anna Lena Phillips Bell

On most days by midafternoon, no matter which way I slice the light, I find it lacking. Rooms feel stale, or maybe I do; it is a time when whatever I have failed to do looms, everyone is busy with something else, and worst of all—I’m getting hungry. As a result, the title of Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poem made me want to read quickly—to pass the poem as I often want to skim over the two, three, four o clock hours. And yet this “Midafternoon” requires the reader to pause, to examine her situation more deliberately.

Even visually, the poem’s dashes enact suspension before we’ve fully begun reading. The first dash follows the revelation that a friend has gone, plunging the reader into the gutted silence of departed company. Rather than skirting the emptiness, however, the speaker walks us around inside it “watching the rooms return/ slowly resettling/ into their daily selves.” The trimeter here is a little short for our breath and thereby enacts her ostensibly offhand and almost apologetic observations, including the bestowal of “here shabbiness, here halo.” Bell’s speaker offers both aspects of the room’s dual nature to readers; whereas she sees her own rooms “dimmed by repetition” or “clotted with contempt” (even the sounds are close and cramped!) she marvels at the eyes of her guest and their more generous perception.

The trimeter also enacts triangulation—speaker, objects in the room, and the missing guest or reader—within the poem, explicating known distances between the herself and the perceived distance between the room and guest in order, perhaps, to ascertain the distance between the speaker and guest, or beheld and beholder. This is the connection of interest, and the cadence here, especially when it tacks on the seventh syllable, highlights how much the speaker relies on being seen or heard.

As we hold the moment it is already settling, Bell suggests; even as we are present and perceiving, we are turning to dust. Her desire to “rest, to float” in the passing instant is an act of resistance in itself, for to slow this inevitable progression is to position oneself against the forces that allow us to gloss over our mortality, just was we gloss over our living room and the dailiness we allow to consume us.

And here the two impulses fuse—the desire to rest as a dust mote in all its shabbiness, and the desire to be seen by others, who, through their perception, can cast her as haloed. Bell writes “watch me: /as I am in the house—/as I am of the rooms—” echoing the old hymn “Just as I Am, Without One Plea” which takes the same meter and offering of self. While the refrain of the hymn includes “I come, I come,” the speaker here inverts sentiment asking the reader to come to her, to witness this moment. She takes on the divine “I am” articulating her presence as something that needs no justification, beyond its ability to hover “in a beam/ of light squared by a window.”

The word “square” works doubly here, as both as a square window and as something set right, made right by the light that passes through. As we are made right, or hallowed by simply being seen. The act of witnessing exonerates and gives permission, the poem suggests. And though the moment may be more comfortable alone, to bare ourselves opens the possibility for being illumined, even for us dust-beings. In midafternoon when we feel no shortage of shabbiness, if we allow ourselves to float, Bell promises we may even gleam.

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives south of San Francisco, California, where she teaches professional writing to aspiring accountants.

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