Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review



by Richard Moore

Truman State University Press, 2000
67 Pages

Review by Jan Schreiber

There’s an insufferable arrogance in the enterprise of reviewing a book of poems. As if the earnest struggles of a writer attempting to impose clarity on his most complex thoughts and emotions could be given, in effect, a grade, a rating. It is perhaps that recognition, conscious or not, that leads many reviewers to express merely routine appreciation or to respond to the poems they like and ignore the rest. The only justification for a more rigorous approach is that this is ultimately the stance of stern posterity, which is for many poets the audience that truly matters.

As a teacher of poetry, Robert Fitzgerald was reputedly chary with praise for his students’ efforts. Frequently, a grudging "not bad" was the only accolade a poem received, often abbreviated to "NB." A really extraordinary effort might merit "not half bad" or "NHB." That was about as good as it got. I find this a useful shorthand, and a good way of avoiding the excesses of review-speak. If I apply such terms to Richard Moore’s poems, I do so not because I have arrogated to myself a status as his teacher (the reverse is more appropriate), but because it is better to be quick and brisk rather than ponderous and lapidary.

This is a difficult book to describe, let alone review. It ranges widely in subject matter and style, and over a full half century in composition dates. Yet it is the proverbial slim volume of only 67 pages. Its diversity in little reveals much about its author’s own complexity, his multifacetedness. Are all the poems and styles equally successful? Of course not. But there are gems, and the pleasure of looking for them is enhanced often enough by the delights of finding them.

The book is divided into four sections, the first ("Withered into Art") sprinkled with the author’s early poems, some of which have been revised within the last few years. The second section ("The Giant Redwood") includes several political poems commemorating situations and events that people under fifty are unlikely to understand without additional commentary. The third section ("Seeming to Live") includes satirical poems of a different type, evidently influenced by the Roman satirists; and the fourth section ("The Veil") brings us up to the present day and contains several meditations on age and time.

The title poem, which precedes all four sections, is an invocation embodying Moore’s characteristic complexity. He yokes together high and low, seeking aid for his literary undertaking in words but also in a scarecrow he has constructed of wood and rags. The scarecrow sings, asking the wind to tear the rags from his wooden limbs, that the crows (readers?) will "come to roost / at last on sticks." This would seem to be a celebration of the plain style, which eschews verbal figures ("frills, tricks") in favor of unadorned statement. But the poem is itself an elaborate figure, an exceedingly artful construction that implicitly refutes the austerity sought with such apparent earnestness.

A poet with decades of poems behind him can scarcely resist the occasional impulse to rekindle an old flame – to take up a poem written long ago and revise it with the superior artistry of maturer years. This impulse is evident in the book’s first section, in such poems as "The Defense," dated 1950-1993, or "Man, Boy, Birds," dated 1958-1990. One cannot know from the texts at hand what wiser second thoughts have supervened, but both poems lack the lucidity of the author’s later writing. In the first, the characters are an unnamed "she" and the narrative "I." We meet the female character in the first stanza, when she calls the narrator "mad" and he responds,

  I’d only glimpsed what shined
 through endless folds of sanity,
  a glance she had
  before her mind
 got there with yards of drapery.

Then we lose sight of her till the end of the poem, when the narrator reflects:

  Yes, it was madness, I
  moon-struck, loose in the night –
 I only wished pain, labor, birth,
  wished her to lie,
  like the moon white,
 naked on black and fertile earth.

There’s considerable feeling, but the situation is murky. Young persons’ poems are often obscure, not because the writers lack the technique of clear description, but because they cannot decide how much of private experience they can appropriately confide in the public forum of a poem. The result is frequently an excess of art.

They’re a motley group, the poems in this first section, comprising as they do satirical essays, elegant whimsy ("Variations on a Dog"), and allusions to a disintegrating marriage. The last poem of the section, "Epilogue," from which the section title is taken, is worth quoting in its entirety:

 As painters might arrange still life,
 so I, decades of daughters, wife,
 me with them, playing my bit part.
 Then it all withered into art.

One makes art of what presents itself, but often one would rather have the life. Still, not bad.

I cannot leave this section without calling attention to one of Moore’s metrical achievements, a poem called "Depths," based on Horace’s Fourth Asclepiadean Ode. The poem is unrimed, and the four stanzas all follow the same metrical pattern. I quote the third:

 New waves out of the night’s mist and obscurity
 lunge up high on the beach, spending their energy,
  each wave angrily dying,
     all shapes endlessly altering ...

The trick here is to fix the pattern in the mind, so that the stanzas, though natural-sounding, achieve a kind of "rhythmic rime" with each other, provoking recognition. Moore keeps his language both idiomatic and dignified, producing a poem that, if not overwhelming (I’m not sure about that "angrily"), is nonetheless one to which a reader happily returns.

Political satire of the kind Moore presents in the second part of his book is not easy, and in any case its effectiveness depends on two imponderables: the political or social sentiments of the reader and the currency of the subject matter. Not all these poems, which tend to simplify issues for the sake of comic effect, are to my taste, but others may find them witty, topical, and irreverent. One poem, a dimeter sonnet, ends: "and God made man – / and man went BOOM."

I’ll move rather quickly through the brief third section of the book, with its brisk, slightly cruel epigrams and a poem in six-foot lines ("The Time") offering crannies for too many adjectives. Occasionally one feels the pressure of a mania for rime, as when, in "April is the Cruelest Month," Moore tells us that "Thrusting weeds throttle / the old Lord Calvert bottle." Throttle means choke. Its associations can certainly be extended, but it will carry a connotation of stopping a stream of something (air, water, life). Is it the right word to use with an empty whisky bottle? Some readers will be troubled, others will marvel at the poet’s resourcefulness.

But I’ll admit that one silly and ingenious rime lodged in my memory and nothing I can do will shake it out. It’s in a sort of parody called "The Passionate Shepherd’s Return," which starts out, "Come live with me / in ancient Moscovy. / I got a little hovel / near Yaroslavl." Moore’s rimes are nothing if not inventive, and one could well imagine a lady of a certain verbal disposition quite beguiled by this.

The poems in "The Veil," the book’s fourth and last section, are poems of winter. They celebrate a time when "Sun-softened hills harden to amethyst" and "A new world comes – its glitter and its cost." As we age, every natural detail in the passing of the seasons becomes a metaphor.

In Moore’s hands the metaphors are deftly controlled. One of the best poems in this section, in my judgment, is "In Future Time." Its four stanzas depict the advance of winter, seen as steely and tuneless. The very moonlight is "gun-blue," the pond has a "coarse, metallic surface." Lights like piano keys "bite through the trees," but one hears "Only the dry-leaf rattle of the wind / undisciplined / and unrecorded." I do wonder why the wind "whistles to summer’s acorns," and why the acorns are "darkly" hoarded. Control seems to waver here, though I may be missing something. However, the last line, "spring brings the plough," returns us to the full force of Moore’s irony and ambiguity. Spring will come, and with it the preparation of fields for new growth. But it is implacable metal that prepares the ground, and to plow up new clods is also to plow under the remnants of life that failed to survive winter’s ravages.

A companion piece is "The New Order," which seems almost to celebrate the numbing power of cold: "the clean sheet glosses the lost ground." The ground is lost because it has disappeared beneath the snow, and we have metaphorically "lost ground" because life has been stripped away from us. The snow glosses the ground by turning it smooth and white, and it interprets (glosses) the ground by giving us a somewhat inaccurate representation of it. This multi-layered, contrapuntal quality of language is pervasive in Moore’s best poems and fuels the irony behind the statement a few lines later: "A sovereign power / brings peace on earth." "Thus comforts cold," Moore observes. "Nothing is strange / when nothing is felt." The poem concludes that only by becoming numb, imperceptive, in effect dead, can one avoid the effects of years "in whose dread change / imperiums melt."

About 800 years ago the German poet Walther von der Vogelweide wrote a poem that might well be the ancestor of these two. It begins, "Now has stark winter brought harm to us all," and it challenges winter’s right "To spread his dark power so wide and so tight." Moore, who is familiar with a wide range of German poetry, may well have had this poem in mind when he wrote his verses, which, however, are informed by a modern sensibility and the disillusionment of a perceptive man in his later years.

"The Veil," the poem that gives the section its title, is written in rimed iambic dimeter couplets. It is, if anything, more complex than the "winter" poems that went before it, because it messes up the neat dichotomy between life and death, summer and winter, illusion and reality. The poem’s focus is a tree, seen in winter and in summer. The poem acknowledges the "deep confusion" that the differing aspects engender. The observer stares at the naked tree in winter and says,

Thinking I’ll prove
it real, I move
my head south, north,
to bring it forth
and so, reveal
its depth, its feel.

Despite all these views, "beneath the Many, / it is the One," and it remains undefinable. The problem is compounded when the tree puts on the leaves of summer and we are met with "a strange scene / of savage green." (Nice adjective – connoting wild, uncontrolled, primitive, even violent foliage.) Thus, Moore suggests, the tree charms the eyes in the same way that poets, by their "lies," charm the ears. And yet, in these rapidly superseding views, "in greenery / in sun, in gale" we see after all the tree’s "truest shape." What does that mean? That the truth lies in multiplicity. That any one view is a lie, and that in scanning a scene we see at once "its face, its veil." Like a Zen master, Moore has cautioned us, "If you believe what I have just told you, you are only getting part of the story."

A writer of tremendous versatility, Moore has at times characterized himself as primarily a comic poet, a writer of mock epics (The Mouse Whole). Others think of him as a satirist, a writer of metrical curiosities, a perverse classicist, or (as I labeled him in a previous review) a prophet. Save only the writer of mock epics, one can find each of these Richard Moores in the present book. But he remains also a writer of serious and well crafted lyric verse of notable complexity and power. There is enough excellent and evidently recent material in this book to convince a thoughtful reader that, as he starts his eighth decade, Moore is at the top of his game. For this, his readers should be properly grateful. Not half bad, Mr. Moore!

Jan Schreiber