Poem of the Week | November 04, 2013
Lisa Russ Spaar: "Owl Hour"
This week we offer a new poem by Lisa Russ Spaar. Spaar is the author of many collections of poetry, including Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012). She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart: London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry, appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry, Boston Review, Blackbird, IMAGE, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies, and her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has been a master teacher at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and the Vermont Studio Center, and she is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.
I am fascinated by Books of Hours, devotional texts hailing from the Middle Ages and burgeoning—with the proliferation of printing presses—in the Renaissance. Typically these breviaries, meant for laypersons, contained prayers for the canonical hours and offices, along with seasonal calendars, psalms, and lists of saints and feast days. Some of the early Books of Hours, commissioned by wealthy families, were hand-illuminated and lavishly illustrated. Especially alluring to me are the artistic depictions of everyday life—a little boy pissing from the open doorway of his half-timbered house into the snow in the calendar miniature for the month of February in the Grimani Breviary, for example, or young haymakers skinny-dipping in the background while a party of noble men and women pass by in the August illustration for Les Très riches Heures du Duc de Berry. I love the particular way in which the marriage of religious ardor and quotidian resonance in these texts marks time.
“Owl Hour” comes from a series on which I’ve recently been at work—cocktail hour, story hour, coffee hour, therapy hour, eleventh hour, our hour, &c. The poem is about a visitation—the sighting in a park, on a grim winter afternoon, of an owl. The owl seems to the watcher both swaddled infant and “prehistoric” ancient of days, and its presence stirs “unplumbed sleeting / within, girlhood’s obscure guilt lingering.” The off-rhymed couplets are intentionally specular, and meant to show the magical thinking by which the speaker feels bound to this creature, this “Figment, seed invisible in sky’s snow.” Jesus Arrabal, a character in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, calls a miracle the intrusion of one world into another. The speaker is afraid that the hour of this raptor’s visitation will pass if she loses faith, if she looks away—thus the last line: “any mutiny in this going is mine, I know.” So while the poem is on the one hand simply about seeing an owl perched in a winter tree above the swing-set of a park, it is also, I hope, a poem about how dangerous it can feel not to recognize glimpses of the other world when they are shown to us, and also about how hard it is to trust in the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
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