Momentary (from Poetry)
I never glimpse her but she goes
Who had been basking in the sun,
Her links of chain mail one by one
Aglint with pewter, bronze and rose.
I never see her lying coiled
Atop the garden step, or under
A dark leaf, unless I blunder
And by some motion she is foiled.
Too late I notice as she passes
Zither of chromatic scale—
I only ever see her tail
Quicksilver into tall grasses.
I know her only by her flowing,
By her glamour disappearing
Into shadow as I’m nearing—
I only recognize her going.
Though we are talking about one creature, I feel like three different creatures are being described – one in each stanza. Each has a snakelike quality, whether scales of a sort, coiling and striking, slithering away. There is something vaguely chimerical about the riddle.
In the first stanza, the space the speaker enters and views had a creature “basking in the sun.” That creature is likened to a beautiful piece of armor, “aglint with pewter, bronze and rose.” Jewelry, statues, and other markers of honor can impress that much more in sunlight. We often talk about daylight and reason, but the sun dazzles and we don’t always like to think. I wonder if what the speaker is missing is what animates the idols we create. Whatever animates them is in us, to be sure, but it flies away as we get closer to the heart of the matter. Only an absolute nut thinks he’s a hero all the time.
So maybe the creature of the first stanza keeps a certain kind of beauty, that of glory, mysterious. That’s stretching the metaphor a bit on the strength of the first stanza alone, but the second stanza brings in the big themes, if “Momentary” and its invocation of time didn’t do so already. There’s a snakelike creature either on the garden step or under a leaf, hiding in shadows and waiting to strike at any time. The funny thing: it is easy to read this poem and think that the speaker never sees the creature she talks about. But in this stanza, she does. If the speaker herself blunders, it is “foiled” and seen.
This continues another theme related to glory and reflection. Another thing that makes us reflect is awareness of our sins and mistakes. It isn’t enough to sin or make mistakes – something has to go wrong and we have to realize it and be impacted. Only then do we wake up and see the real chain of events.
Reconstructing a chain in this poem is the exception, but it isn’t clear what our speaker gets from it. Let’s say you want to see exactly what you did right, what sung maybe to others but definitely to yourself (“zither of chromatic scale”). You’ll only see the tail end of it at best (bad pun, I know).
The problem of self-knowledge is that of time if you want your experience to speak to you. Our own home, our self-construction, is more about the shadows than the things we deem obvious. Robert Bly’s “The Moon” talks about this as a source of poetic inspiration. Because I’m obsessed with the problem of Socrates – I do wonder about a life without conventional limits, particularly the problem of how even one conceives of oneself – I’ll add this: the second stanza points away from the “glamour” and radiance of the third and first stanzas. You can mark out the shadows, so to speak, and mark the path you took more honestly. Whether that’ll get you what you want, that’s another question. There’s something to be said for how beautiful all of it is, at times.