The Words I Didn’t Know I Knew Until I Read Them

Have you ever read a line or two in a poem or a sentence in prose that you “recognize”? Words that seem to speak to you? I’ve had the thrill of that experience many times, and even so, it always feels like something rare and special. As if the words reach somewhere inside me and find a perfect match. A puzzle piece in the proper place.

I began a memoir piece I wrote about the bomb shelter my father built in our basement with lines from a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly:

while the one divides into two: the heart and its shadow,
The world and its threat, the crow back of the sparrow.

These lines are from a poem called “Of Ancient Origins and War.” When I read them for the first time, I felt as if I already knew them although they contained fresh images that I had never read.

They reminded me of when I lived in the house with the bomb shelter under my feet. I previously wrote about the shelter here. When I last visited Michigan, I drove by the house. The trees are much more mature today, and the house is no longer white. Is the bomb shelter still there?

I think the reason Kelly’s lines struck me is because they felt “real” to me. The notion that the heart has a shadow. That’s not something ever said, but it’s true. It’s kind of frightening. There is love and there is love’s shadow. There is the beating center of our existence and there is a shadow created by our very existence.

And of course there is the world and the threat to the world, as well as the threat that comes from the world. What better representation of the threat is a bomb shelter. By trying to protect his family, my father terrified us.

Although “the crow back of the sparrow” feels so right here, my understanding of it seems to float. What do you think it means?

What fresh new words from a story or poem have you recognized?



Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Literary Journals, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

28 responses to “The Words I Didn’t Know I Knew Until I Read Them

  1. Beautiful piece. I will be more mindful about phrases and lines that speak to me like that. (Oh no…surely not a New Year’s resolution!)

  2. Fathers are a mix of fear and heart 🙂 My father (a cop) used to bring home pictures of drug addicts and their track-marked arms to protect and educate us about the dangers of drug abuse. He’d seen so many “good kids” (as he always lovingly called them) get lost and it haunted him. The images haunted me for a LONG time, but I can look back and see how much he loved us and laugh.
    Your old house reminds me of the New Jersey neighborhood I grew up in. I hated the suburbs as a kid, but there was something very comforting about it, too.

    • Oh man, that’s a heavy load to put on a kid–the heart and mind of a copy who has seen everything. But it does sound like he loved you a lot!
      I can’t remember liking or not that neighborhood–it just was. We moved when I was 8 so I think I was too little. But after that we lived in a series of one suburban neighborhood after another, and I grew to think they were confining–and then sought them out when I had kids haha.

      • My kids were very happy in the suburbs. I didn’t understand it until we moved to the country. Everything here happens at the school so some of the freedom of just walking off to a friend’s is lost.

  3. I love that…’the heart and its shadow’. In trying to protect you and your family, your father terrified you. Reminds me of my dad who sat in his chair with a cigarette in one hand and bottle of whiskey, open of course, in the other, telling me while drunk, that he never wanted to see me do either of them. I was 15 and you can imagine what I thought of that. Yet, yet…I knew he loved me and really did want to protect me and I remember being consumed with grief at how low this man, my dad, had sunk. And it was to get so much worse. Your photo, to me, is very ‘Americana’ and reminds me of the home that my American G I boyfriend lived in. In fact, I’m at the part in my memoir right now where I’m writing about my very first visit there way back in 1979. So you see Luanne, you always give me so much to think about. I hope you had a great Christmas (and I hope you got my message on Facebook about your dad in response to your update post). So glad that he is recovering. Here’s to a New Year filled with blessings…

    • Sherri, you paint a vivid picture of your father and his bittersweet story here. I can’t wait to read your memoir! Americana hahaha. I guess it is! Thanks so much re my dad. I’m just worried that he and my mother are trapped in their house without being able to be visited by many because of the flu epidemic. So he’s not really getting the exercise he needs and his legs are very weak. They live in a retirement community and the main house and nursing home are in quarantine. They live in a garden home so have more space than the people in the apartments and rooms who are confined to them now so they don’t get ill.
      Thank you for the New Year blessings–back atcha, girl!! xo

      • Oh goodness, that is a worry. Do they issue flu shots over there? Here anyone over 65 or who has a chronic illness – heart, diabetes, chest problems etc. – or who is pregnant, or a carer gets the shot for free, also includes for swine flu I think. I get is as a carer but I still got a horrible cough and cold, although not the flu, granted. Your parent’s place sounds lovely with a garden…I hope they get the proper help which will be good for them and put your mind at rest too.
        Have a great weekend Luanne, catch up soon… xoxo

  4. Sometimes it’s not a line but a word or phrase. It’s melodious and with meaning. I wrap it around my tongue to enjoy the flavor and try to make it a part of my speech. Sometimes it works and sometimes I end up sounding pretty silly.

    • Yes, I know what you mean. I like crunchy words, for instance! Maybe words are akin to the experience of eating 😉 and I like to do that!

  5. I have a feeling when I read your memoir, I’ll have that feeling, Luanne. 🙂 I would love to drive by the home I grew up in. I would be very tempted to knock and the door for a tour…of course, the owner would probably think I was crazy.

  6. You cast out a net already filled with stars.

  7. It is a resonant image – I take that last image to mean that the shadow cast by the sparrow is bigger than the sparrow is itself – as you describe, your father meant to protect you but the thought of the bomb shelter became bigger and scarier than that. This also reminds me of when I was at school and there was a lot of talk about the 4 minute warning if a nuclear bomb was to be launched – information adverts on TV and we had to act out being survivors in a bomb shelter in drama at school – the result, I had endless nightmares about nuclear war!

    • Andrea, I love that notion about the sparrow! Yes! Why did they have to scare us so much?! They made us put our heads under little flimsy desks and said it was in case of “tornadoes,” but most of the kids knew better!

  8. Isn’t a floating meaning one of the measures of a really good poem? As you change and grow in understanding of “stuff”, you gain insight that you didn’t have the first time you read the poem.

  9. I like it when I find out where my images or words from a poem, fragments of thoughts came from, Luanne. Sometimes, it is just a small thread of a piece of writing or sometimes it is like your memory, an entire two lines. I think a crow is considered ‘war-like’ while there is even a song about the sparrow, which is viewed more like a ‘dove’ peaceful and gentle.
    I had forgotten or never closely read your father’s bomb shelter story, I shall travel back once I comment.
    I like your home, it looks nice and the trees are pretty. I think that white houses were more common in our childhood, my elementary house was almost exactly like this one. (On Scottley Drive, Sandusky, Ohio). What I wished to share with you, was my shock when I went back years later to find two of our Christmas trees, which would have been only 4 feet high, I believe when we planted them two years in a row,… they were towering over our simple little ranch house. Our was painted grey with blue shutters,or possibly siding after it was ‘transformed’ from its original white with black shutters… Smiles to you and thank goodness you outgrew fears, I hope you were not too traumatized… My brothers and I thought Rocky and Bullwinkle with the Russian spies was rather crazy and dramatic!

    • Boris and Natasha?! Such fun as a kid! You’re right that a lot of houses that started out as white painted were sided with colors! I hadn’t thought of that. The first house hubby and I bought was actually siding, but it was a nasty mint green (well, pretty for food, but not for a house). Because it was siding we left it alone, but another owner since then has painted it to get rid of that color!
      That’s a neat idea about the crow being associated more with war and the sparrow as more peaceful. I’ve even seen sparrows where they have a spot of black like that, so that in a literal sense there is a “crow back” on some sparrows.

  10. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is an Alabama song with Jesus in the lyrics watching the bird. But I do think there was a peace song with sparrow in it, but cannot find it right now…I feel crow back of the sparrow, means the sparrow may be hiding our strength. Another interpretation…

    • Ooh, that’s a good one, too! I love hearing all these meanings because they all work and just add to the poem! I know the song but not by Alabama, but I’ve heard it by others.

  11. I have no idea what it means, but I was reminded of the phrase “as the crow flies.” As if you are measuring the sparrow that way…?

  12. I love thinking about the heart and all of its shadows. So deep and poetic. Thanks for sharing this piece, Luanne. It offered so much to think about.

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