Before Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke yesterday at Lenoir-Rhyne, the students in my 8 a.m. class and I read an excerpt from her memoir Pastrix: The Cranky and Beautiful Life of a Sinner and Saint (2013). The excerpt, “La Femme Nadia,” depicts the events in late 1991 and early 1992 that led Bolz-Weber to sobriety and to God. For my students and me reading in a “writerly” way, “La Femme Nadia” served as an instructive model for its apt sensory detail (“My skin felt like the rough side of Velcro”), and its graceful shifts from summary to scene:
Margery, a leathery-faced woman with a New Jersey accent, was talking about prayer or some other nonsense when suddenly a sound like a pan falling on the tile floor came up from the kitchen below us. I jerked out of my seat like I was avoiding shrapnel, but no one else reacted. Without skipping half a beat, Margery turned to me, with a long slim cigarette in her hand and said, ‘Honey, that’ll pass.’ She took a drag and went on, ‘So anyways, prayer is. . .’
I did not revisit those details from “La Femme Nadia” with my 12:15 students because their class period coincided with the first of Bolz-Weber’s two March 5 appearances as one of the featured writers in the university’s Visiting Writers Series.
In lieu of our scheduled class, we attended the presentation—one that Bolz-Weber nearly missed due to weather-related travel woes that she recounted with humor and grace.
Her remarks focused on faith rather than writing—she would turn her focus to writing at 7 p.m.–but her 12:15 talk was relevant to writers nevertheless. In response to a question about the Eucharist, she paraphrased Flannery O’Connor and spoke eloquently in her own words: “You have to be deeply rooted in tradition to innovate with integrity.” The same is true of writing and of all other art.
Paul Muldoon was supposed to read at Lenoir-Rhyne last Thursday, as one of the featured authors in the university’s Visiting Writers Series, but the snow kept him away. Day classes were cancelled at the university, too, so my students and I didn’t read his poem “Hedgehog” together as planned. But yesterday, as the rain washed away the lingering snow, we returned to the classroom for our postponed study of poetry, beginning with “Hedgehog.” An early poem of Muldoon’s, “Hedgehog” meditates on the animal of the title as well as the snail, likening the snail to a hovercraft and the hedgehog’s quills to a crown of thorns.
The tentative responses that followed our reading showed how reluctant we can be to express our thoughts about poetry. We are so accustomed to reading straightforward prose that a poem’s roundabout way of making meaning can lead us to doubt ourselves, to sense that there’s something we’re not getting from the poem but should be.
I cannot say precisely why Muldoon chose to run the simile “The snail moves like a/Hovercraft” from the first line to the second, but I can say—and did say to my students—that it’s an example of enjambment, something to try if we want to achieve a similar run-on effect.
As we begin drafting our own poems, I keep thinking about the pleasure of reading that simile, the surprise followed by recognition. Never before had I thought of a snail moving like a propeller-driven hovercraft. And never before had I thought of the hedgehog and the snail as kindred animals for their ability to retreat into themselves.
The snail, the hovercraft, the hedgehog, the crown of thorns: these are now linked in my mind. That’s what “Hedgehog” has given me.
Writing Ideas Torn from “Hedgehog”
A poem that depicts the similarity between two animals and compares each of the two to something else