In the Valley of the Shadow

Sarah Gordon Click to

Sarah Gordon, the author of Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination and A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, is a prolific poet in her retirement, publishing work most recently in Sewanee Review, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and Carolina Quarterly. She won second prize in the William Matthews Poetry Contest sponsored by Asheville Poetry Review.

How she remembers, years after her mother died,
that big lake in her childhood, so wide, her father
pronounced solemnly, you couldn’t see across.

How that first lesson in unfathomable distance
stayed with her, the limits of vision, the senseless
deep.  Her toe could not touch bottom.

How she’d caught on to his little joke and made
of herself a containment vessel:  settling heroically
behind the wheel, fingering the surgical stitches

as she awaited the doctor’s call, breaking bread
with the enemy more than once, sifting through
the ashes. Hail Mary. Hell. Stepping up to the plate.

How now, in her old age, the ball of twine swiftly
rolls just out of reach. How the glass falls and breaks,
and water, so much water, twice or thrice

what the glass could hold, spills everywhere,
ruining page and paper and carpet and cloth.
How there is no such thing as graceful retrieval,

no such thing as unremarkable loss. Houses
empty like candy jars, scattering their treasures
on the lawn. The hole in the sofa is an open wound,

the dingy linen folded to hide the primal stains.
How cracked those cups that once ran over,
how seamed they are, those broken hearts, now

permanently out of stock, discontinued, like letters,
land lines, family.  How memory exists without a sound,
unvarnished scenes from a silent movie, rapid-fire,

endlessly tantalizing. How she clings to that intimate
cast of characters, fondly lingering over this one, that one,
making alterations, adding color, dialogue, markers, walls.

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2 Responses to In the Valley of the Shadow

  1. Bill Burke says:

    Wonderful, wonderful poem, moving and profound. Many of us of a certain age (I’m 85) will find this poem expressing what we think and feel in quiet moments of reflection–our lives mostly behind us, scattered pieces of memory, loss, and meaning that don’t quite fit together–except in this poem. This is the poem I have been looking for for the past ten years.

  2. Bill Burke says:

    On rereading the poem I am struck and moved by the similarities with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. That novel concludes with near-sighted artist Lily Briscoe, after much reminiscing and re-imagining, finally completing her painting, a painting that recovers from the ashes of history not only the moments of joy and the power of grief, but also endows meaning to the Ramsay family life. Sarah Gordon’s poem attains a parallel artistic accomplishment. Her recovery of just the right detail phrased with just the right words in just the right order shows there is such a thing as “graceful retrieval” after all. As the poem empties a life it fills it as well.

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