Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Dangerous Corner by Richard Moore

The Dangerous Corner by Richard Moore, David Roberts Books, 2007, $17.00, paper, ISBN 9781933456836.

Review by Bert Stern, PhD.

The publication of this, Richard Moore’s thirteenth book of poetry, deepens the mystery of his relative obscurity. His mock epic cum Bildungsroman, The Mouse – Whole, which Moore calls “the main poem in my life” didn’t find a publisher until some 40 years after it was completed, though it’s a comic masterpiece. His work has been praised by such poets as May Swenson, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, and Mona Van Duyn. Yet Moore remains, as he has always been, something of a castaway.

It’s possible to say, on his own testimony, that he was born such. His father wanted him aborted, and Moore matured to a kind of sympathy with his father’s position. Father, implicitly, and son, explicitly, agree that this world isn’t fit to live in. Not all his ironies or volumes of light verse do anything to change that view. And this new volume, in which Moore explicitly sees this world as hell, confirms it.

It also confirms that Moore can write free verse of amazing power and beauty, proof on nearly every page: In a Christmas poem, he says:

. . . All color has left the land,
been squeezed out, as from a sponge,
and let the land a thing of ashes.
And the great sponge has squeezed all
its soaked-up fire and color into

that shopping center, where sex-tools, soul helps,
screwdrivers and philosophies
are for sale. . . .

(“Into the Light”)

In “On High”:

Over the constant irritation of the avenue,
the irregular shrill quarreling of the tires
that keep whipping the pavement, as with dry wind
in gusts, in fits, and the library’s portico fitted

with pillars, caught in floodlight, where a flag
flops lazily that someone didn’t take down –
over all this tawdry nonsense of the town
and much more that I shan’t trouble to describe,

Venus rides in the blue night, a gem, a pulse
pillowed in richness like a queen.

Typically, in “On High” Queen Venus will collapse into a lover in bed, a woman Moore doesn’t “even much like,” but who offers him such

. . .lush variety,
each touch and squeeze, sure, exact, imaginative,
and all mingled with such a symphony of groans,
writhings, desperate pantings, tossings of the head

as Moore, having taken a mistress after his wife’s death, would never have dreamed possible in marriage.

The death of his wife, and the aftermath, is ostensibly the subject of Moore’s new book. His starting point is anguished grief, and, by design, the book’s four sections “somewhat resemble” the four movements of a musical sonata, moving toward what Moore calls “the final resolution.” But I don’t mean to suggest that Moore’s purpose is to take us through the stages of loss and grief and recovery. This powerfully non-formulaic book ranges ferociously and astonishingly beyond such bounds.

Moore’s poems are all energy and clash of opposing states. His poems are hard to nail because they are events and never, in fact, resolutions. Each goes through conflicting emotions, conflicting perceptions, and we come away shocked by combinations of anger and reconciliation, beauty and ugliness, and even flashes of spiritual tranquility.

Certain particulars remain more or less constant. The attitude, though placated by beauty, is often anguished, bitter, or plain curmudgeonly. The place is an upper middle class suburb, in which Moore lives in grim opposition. Near his house is a pond, in which Moore repeatedly finds a mirror of his mind. It can be “a thing of mournful shadows, / endlessly undulating into darkness” (“The Mirror”), an “image of the mind at peace” in “pure geometry,” or a place where “Girls in a giggling band” who go by, crying taunts at Moore, can be reflected in the pond as goddesses.

But in the poem that is a kind of signature for the volume,

The deep cold comes, and even the great
pond is frozen, dusted with snow,
luminous under Venus the moon,
suburban lights on the dark hills.

The cold wind has blown over and over
it, and not it is still, my mind,
frozen, determined, and still the wind
shrieks. Let there be no end of it.

Thus it is with Moore. He can pronounce, like Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, that this world is hell, “nor was I ever out of it,” and that, if anything, is the book’s “resolution. But Moore rancor and passions and meticulous craft leave us preferring his hell to many poets’ heavens.

Bert Stern/ Ibbetson Update/Somerville, Mass/ Feb. 2008

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