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
… Harry’s tot’ll
Or, for a tour de force, make all four syllables identical, though they
belong to different words:
but was that
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
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
you fear being
I don’t understand
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
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
I’m luckier than
. . .
“paradise” by the
sea. Oo nice!
The dead man is in
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
on the top of my
Death’s dreary Atlas
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
I wrote my life in
and never feared
When it appeared,
I reached out and
then God kindly
Less transient than he’d think, long may he live in ink.