Specifics

Oh I know, I know, I wrote about The New Yorker in the last posting. But, hey, it’s the thing I read the most, other than The New York Times. But there’s an article in the current issue – March 3rd – that’s been generating a lot of interest for what it says. I’m equally interested in the way the author says it.

The author is the poet Honor Moore, and the article, “The Bishop’s Daughter,” is, as the title suggests, a memoir about her relationship with her father, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore. The New Yorker‘s Web site doesn’t archive every story in perpetuity once the current issue is off the newsstands, so I’ll also link to the article about the piece in today’s New York Times“A Bishop Unveiled God’s Secrets While Keeping His Own.”

Yes, Reader, unbeknownst to much of his flock and his nine children – though possibly not his two wives – the Bishop was gay. There’s a lot more to the story, though, which didn’t make it into the magazine, so I was pleased to find out it’s an excerpt from a book that will be out in May. I look forward to seeing it on a nightstand near me soon.

But as newsworthy as the revelation about the Bishop’s life may be, what drew me into the piece was the way Honor Moore uses words to paint pictures. It’s not surprising – she is a poet, after all, and a darn good one. I first encountered her voice back when I was in college and read her play Mourning Pictures, which opens with the declaration: “Ladies and gentlemen, my mother is dying” and takes the audience on quite an autobiographical ride before it ends.

So how do you learn to use words like that? Reading the few pages of this excerpt, the answer seems to be “By listening to words used like that.” Without ever quoting Bishop Moore directly, Honor leaves no doubt that the power behind his speaking and writing lay in its specificity. Here she talks about the lasting effects of a Good Friday service remembered from her childhood.

“I don’t remember [a specific incident], but I could tell you the whole [Good Friday] story, and as I told it I would see the darkness that descended as the rain fell, the light that broke through a gash in the clouds as the sky cleared, how it sounded when the young man on the Cross said, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ I would tell you about the rich old man who offered his own grave for Jesus at the last minute. I could make you see Jesus’ face loosen as he finally died, and what I imagined Mary Magdalene looked like, sitting there on the ground looking up at him, the vials and pots of fragrant ointment in her lap.”

Specificity brings the written or spoken word to life, gives it color, makes it memorable.

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