Mormon Poetry Now!: Linda Sillitoe, “Encounter”

Series intro and Mormon Poets Roll

Note: I thought a post to honor Linda Sillitoe and her encounter with Mormon letters would provide a suitable launching point for the series. She passed away April 7, 2010. Exponent II has published a tribute for Sillitoe in their latest issue.

One of the most striking poems I’ve read recently is Linda Sillitoe’s unrhymed sonnet “Encounter” (link to PDF from Dialogue 35.1 []), which takes as its lyric province the intergenerational relationship between people, places, and possessions. The poet, born of goodly parents (at least it seems so from the pleasant cache of memories stirred in this sensory experience), begins by formally and lyrically binding this relational triad and expanding and deepening the connections between them from there.

The poem’s form serves as both a binding agent and a vessel for these connections and the poet’s experience of them by providing a matrix around which she could embroider and in which she could offer her words, ideas, and emotions and thus keep them from spinning into chaos and sentimentality. It’s a mark of her poetic achievement and the poem’s success that she refrains from an exhibition of unearned emotion (exhibitionism and unearned emotion being marks of sentimentality), something immature poets often slip into when writing in forms and when writing about personal relationships.

And while the purist might complain that from a strictly technical and historical standpoint this isn’t an out-and-out sonnet, I would argue that it is a sonnet in a modern, more subtle variation of the form. I say this for two reasons: one, it’s divided into an octet that sets up a question—“Has she kept everything?”—and a sestet that begins to answer that question, though the answer, in true (post)modern form and in a way reflecting the complexity of human relationships, just breeds more questions. And two, as any traditional sonnet has and as any sonnet, I think, must, in the words of poets Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, it “suggest[s] narrative progress through its sequence structure, while, in single units, it is capable of the essential lyric qualities of being musical, brief, and memorable” (The Making of a Poem 58; ).

Notice in particular the alliteration at work as binding agent in the first five lines (as through the entire poem): the /n/’s, the sister sounds /b/ and /p/, /d/ and /t/, the /s/’s, the /g/’s, all grouped variously throughout, then combined in the last clause of line five: “I glanced behind me.” I read this mixture as the lyric medicine the poet finds in this cabinet of wonders (even though she claims she was just “searching for a comb”): as she turns toward her past, toward (I presume) her father’s presence in the room, in her life, she finds a “genie”-like granting of the wish that smolders beneath the surface of the poem—that she could remember her father, “[t]wo years” gone, but always a defining presence in her being and in her connection to her mother and to the past, and thus to her present and future.

This desire surfaces—and ripples through subsequent readings of the poem—in the last three lines, the denouement in which the poet wonders about her mother and, beyond that, about the fusion of time and person, place, thing, and sense as this union moves to draw lucid experience, even ecstasy (as suggested by the narcotic-effect the sudden encounter has on the poet: “The room wavered like my knees”), from memory’s cistern and to immerse us in melancholy wonder over the duration, strength, and will of human connection.

Such is an appropriate sentiment to keep in mind, I think, as we strive to “summon” presence and experience from kith and kin past to help and heal us in our present and our future relationships with person, place, and thing.

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