EP&M Online Review

Throw Away the Chart

Review by Jan Schreiber

Richard Moore, Sailing to Oblivion.
Light Quarterly Imprints, 2005. 64 pages, $12.95.

This is an aptly named book. A poet, like a sailor, has a breeze and a destination. His breeze is the sound of the words in his ear, driving him forward as he pays exquisite attention to all the qualities that make them memorable and delightful. His destination is the point in his mind that he steers for, the goal that causes him to choose some words over others, to accept or reject certain lines of thought prompted by the echoes in his mind, as the sailor tacks or jibes, hauls in canvas or lets it out, so as to catch the wind that keeps him on his course, and not be deflected, though the complexity of the course itself is much influenced by the vagaries of the breeze.

But unlike the sailor, who can soon founder on rocks if he abandons the helm and lets his boat rush on unguided before the wind, a poet may choose to care less about his destination than about the sounds of the words propelling him. When he allows his rimes to steer his course, readers are quickly aware that they have entered a different realm: decadence, burlesque, wordplay, “light” verse – something other, at any rate, than the territory of the typical mainstream poem.

For a writer with a finely tuned ear, part of the delight in letting his rimes guide him, unfettered by reason, is the sheer technical challenge. It’s not enough to find unexpected monosyllabic rimes (Keats / tweets, which / kitsch, saint / ain’t) or to find them in fours as well as pairs (cracks, lax, backs, tax). One must find them for feminine (disyllabic) line endings as well, which are inherently funnier, especially if the poet pairs high with low (Viking / biking, Plato / [po]tato). Comic riming also encourages the writer to match two words with one (hate your / nature), or part of a word with a whole one (jeopar- / [dizing] … pepper).

And if two syllables rimed with two are funny, three with three must be funnier still, or at any rate a more formidable challenge (Ptolemy / follow me, [im]prison us / business). Then surely four will take the prize:

        … Harry’s tot’ll
    translate Aristotle.

Or, for a tour de force, make all four syllables identical, though they belong to different words:

    but was that gladiator
    glad he ate her?

Who in fact cares what the poem says, when the manner of saying evokes such applause from the groundlings?

Indeed, a reader who abandons himself or herself to the whim of words, and who cares not a fig for decorum, will find here treats (if that’s the word) like the following:

    De gustibus est disputandum
    when there’s a puncture in the condom.

And so forth. Other writers, of course, including some of high talent, have succumbed to the attractions of sound untainted by sense. But Moore. going farther, makes a virtue of excess. The wonder is that, with the restraints of intellect and super-ego so loosened, anything of enduring interest should find its way into this book’s pages. Yet on occasion it does. So perhaps the siren-tranced sailor was not altogether asleep at the helm. For amid the irresponsible rimes and rants, little gems like these appear:

    For a Friend Who Worries Too Much about Himself

    O miserable lepton,
    you fear being stepped on.
    I don’t understand your
    delusions of grandeur.

In all the history of satiric invective, has any butt of wit up to now been called a lepton? Yet what entity other than this impossibly small subatomic particle could better embody insignificance? And what mean status, at least from a human perspective, could be farther removed from grandeur?

Is this book, then, a delight and a superior amusement from start to finish? I suppose that depends on your mood and your disposition. Many of the poems have a peculiar tone that comes from a choice of cloying words used in a somewhat sarcastic manner:

    My life’s totally peachy.
    I’m luckier than Nietzsche.


    . . .
    “paradise” by the sea. Oo nice!
    The dead man is in paradise.


    My death and I – bless us! are so chummy.
    A strange cold comfort. Like sherbert. Yummy!

Certain high-minded readers may feel that this sort of thing palls rather quickly. The writer is posing, they will say, and the poses are childish when such folk would prefer them to be clever. Yet Moore is clever, at moments, as when he writes of “The Codger in the Blizzard”:

    When the cold winds shall freeze us,
    of our pains they will ease us.
    Pretty soon I’ll be dead now:
    will become unaware
    of the absence of hair
    on the top of my head now,
    and through Death’s dreary Atlas
    travel happy, though hatless.

There the tone is still informal, a mite self-deprecating, but not jejune. The poem is saying goodbye to both creature comforts and vanity, while embracing an uncertain consolation. We’re not embarrassed by silliness, but sympathetic and amused.

Every so often in this book, the diligent reader encounters one of these charmers. For many they will be worth the price of admission. I have already cited a couple. Here, as a fitting farewell, is Moore’s anticipatory epitaph, in the last lines of the final poem, “The Cyclist’s Psych List”:

    … “Like good King Wenzel,
    I wrote my life in pencil
    and never feared its end.
    When it appeared, my friend,
    I reached out and embraced it;
    then God kindly erased it.”

Less transient than he’d think, long may he live in ink.

                                                                                                       Jan Schreiber