My mother, a gardener, had a book in her library with a pleasantly old-fashioned title: Plants That Merit Attention.

Certain sentences merit attention, and over the life of this blog I’ve featured and talked about quite a few. These are sentences that rather leap out at you, little poems amid the prose.

Rereading, last night, the prose of Marjorie Williams, I found these two sentences. In the first, she’s describing her mother on her deathbed:

There she was in the hospital bed that had been brought in and set up in the corner of her bedroom, comatose some of the time and the rest of the time small and frail with an avian air of confusion.

In the other – I’ll give you two sentences for this one – she’s talking about the depression she and her husband felt as they tried living a normal life after Williams’ cancer diagnosis:

We don’t have to be actively thinking about the wild uncertainty of our future together to be pulled by its undertow. Sometimes, when either of us comes out of it and manages briefly to raise from the ocean floor the graceful wreck of our old, normal life, we can be happy for days or weeks or even a month.

Avian, yes? And the graceful wreck, yes? These are moments amid the prose when the eye stays on that part of page a bit longer, idles in the unexpected beauty of an image. An avian air. It’s not just that she found the bird metaphor, though that’s already spectacular, a way of making the rather abstract words that precede it (small, frail) suddenly take on physical specificity. It’s that an avian air is a poetic phrase, richly alliterative, delicate to the mind’s ear like a bird, landing with the mother’s frailty on the very end of the sentence.

And the word air! It breathes meanings, associations… Song, manner, atmosphere. When I first encountered this phrase, I heard a song I sing: The Lass With the Delicate Air. It played through my mind.

Graceful wreck of course is something of an oxymoron, the sort of phrase that lets us do the work we like to do when we read, lets us work out the ambiguities of an idea or argument or situation…

Or not so much work them out as recognize and accept them in their unworked essence. This prose doesn’t instruct. It makes nothing explicit. It gives voice to the almost-unutterable enigmas of life.

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6 Responses to “Sentences That Merit Attention”

  1. AYY Says:

    My reaction to these sentences is the opposite of yours and is more along the lines of what the scathing schoolmarm might say.

    The first sentence is an invasion of the writer’s mother’s privacy, and if it is true it is trivially true. Also I don’t know what an”avian air of confusion” is.

    If the writer thinks she’s smarter than birds she should think again, or if she is, at least should not rub it in. Ravens and crows and some other species are smarter than we are when it comes to the things that matter to them. If the schoolmarm ever saw that sentence she’d be asking, “Shouldn’t the writer have done her research before stereotyping bird brains?”

    The second example you gave also has problems. The information conveyed by the sentences is not chunked in ways that make the sentences readily understandable. The reader must understand the second part of the first sentence before he can understand the first part of the sentence, and when he does understand the two, his reaction is why couldn’t the writer have made it so the reader didn’t have to go through all this effort

    The second sentence in the second example is clearer, but I don’t see how it follows from the first sentence, and the metaphors obscure the meaning.

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  3. Bill Harshaw Says:

    I loved Ms Williams when she was writing columns for the Post, and I love her columns preserved in the book. She combined style, insight, and a distinctive persona. The best die young, or so it seems.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I agree, Bill. A spirited woman, a great writer.

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  6. J. Edward Hackett Says:

    I feel like AYY is too unfair. The point of language often is to point beyond the moment of clarity we have about the world, and to gesture — even ambiguously — to even the stuff that only makes a little sense to us. The playful use of metaphor, “avian air of confusion” is meticulously brilliant. It brings up, as the blog author says, so many associations. The point is not to pinpoint the exact content of what the quoted author is saying with “avian air” but it is the delicate use of imagery and prose that entices the reader into all of those associations. This is tied to a matter by citing what AYY says about “effort” in the second example. Ayy writes,

    “The second example you gave also has problems. The information conveyed by the sentences is not chunked in ways that make the sentences readily understandable. The reader must understand the second part of the first sentence before he can understand the first part of the sentence, and when he does understand the two, his reaction is why couldn’t the writer have made it so the reader didn’t have to go through all this effort”

    First, we should be fair and realize we are quoting out of a text, and taking in abstraction what should be tied to the work of a whole. As such it is a little unfair to accuse the author of putting us through all this unwanted effort since I think the effort would be mitigated had we read the work. Secondly, with that in mind, the effort some authors put us through is the entire point of composing a work a certain way. There are certain features of writing that an author will use, among them even metaphor like “avian air” that, again, entice, and provoke within us what they could possibly mean. In this way, the point of literature is not to say what we can see succinctly and clearly. Go read analytic philosophy for that clarity, but do not think that Hamlet must be as transparent as a dumbed-down version of a wikipedia article. That level of leveling deprives literature and any art form to offer us a transformative experience with what it offers us.

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