RICHARD MOORE'S LATEST work, The Dangerous Corner, deals primarily with the death of his wife, but deftly avoids the usual elegiac pitfalls of myopia and monotony. Though the mood shifts over the course of the book, Moore’s voice remains steady, at least in part because of his gift for poetic order and form, both on the level of the individual poem and in the larger structure of the book. The collection is divided into four sections, each of which has its own emotional tone and stance toward grief. These sections operate much like movements in a sonata—an introduction of themes, a slow movement, a scherzo or wild dance, and a finale in which the themes return transmogrified—tracing a trajectory from despair to acceptance.
Moore has produced three fine books of poetry in the past two years, adding to an already prolific body of work. The poems of his penultimate Buttoned Into History, (Pivot Press, 2006), were, for the most part, highly formal political pieces in tetrameter and trimeter, all end-rhymed and often humorous. But the unrhymed free verse of The Dangerous Corner stands in stark contrast. Not to say these poems are the messy jagged masses that often pass for contemporary “free verse”—far from it. Moore exercises strict control over his lines and the shapes his poems make on the page, and employs a variety of sonic devices to reward the reader’s ear. This, along with his giving equal attention to the base and the beautiful, distinguishes him from his peers.
In “The Nail,” a poem from the first section, Moore offers a plainspoken description of mourning as an act of reconstruction:
First, holding the nail, I give it
careful taps to get it to stand
upright, firm in the plank: this is
preparation, getting it ready
to receive the great swinging
blows of the hammer, which drive it
home. In the intricate job
of forgetting you, I performed those
first taps, the wailing on the floor
the mindless menial activity,
dinners for stuffed acquaintances,
sewing on buttons to prove I could,
ravening through the house, pushing
your rubbish, as with a great plough
before me. Taps. Taps only. You
returned each morning, your nakedness
still in full sight, clear of the deep wood
I’d have you lost in. And there you stood,
and then I struck, and made, beating down dread,
love to another woman in our marriage bed.
The “careful taps” of this poem—the tentative, abrupt line-endings, the rhythmically paced punctuation, the percussive sound of the repeated “it”—conjure the slow, unstable, yet cyclical process of healing from the pain of outliving a loved one. Note how the convoluted syntax and forceful enjambments mimetically echo “the deep wood” of the seventeenth line, which here stands, as it did for Frost and Dante, as a place not so much of death as spiritual crisis—in this case, the guilt of forgetting. This feeling is deepened not only by the author’s taking a new lover, but by his desire for self-preservation, his wishing memory away. It is a natural, even necessary, betrayal, but a betrayal nevertheless. The violence of “great swinging blows,” “I struck,” and “beating down,” reveal the depth of the emotional trauma. Moore’s end-rhymes here, as elsewhere, reveal a poet steeped in formal sensibility, a poet whose decision to write in rhyme feels so effortless that it reads less like a conscious choice than a motion of instinct.
While The Dangerous Corner is grounded in human concerns, Moore, much like his Marianne namesake, often mines nature for analogies. This provides a universalizing effect that is strongest in a poem from the third section of the book, “The Toad,” in which he witnesses the titular animal trying to cross a busy road.
If he hopped like mad, he had a chance . . .
He didn’t even understand the problem.
I found a stick, walked out, prodded.
I never thought of picking him up.
It was his project. It wasn’t mine
This poem, with its consideration of danger and awareness, implicitly corresponds to another poem from the same section, the titular “The Dangerous Corner,” in which Moore describes a curving road where the “angry, sad (some would add / the stupid) poor can give / themselves a thrill . . . here they feel the brief, sweet / moment of exhilaration . . .” These drivers, like the toad, are unaware that they are risking death, and are determined to do it again and again, either out of foolishness or the desire for the fleeting escape it offers from the depressing reality of their lives. Moore may play god momentarily when he urges the toad out of danger, but he is no saint. “He kept getting tired / and giving up. What was this strange / stick, this suffering decreed? / Me?” Just as he has little sympathy for the reckless drivers, he doesn’t save the toad, and thinks of picking it up only later in the reconstructive moment of composing the poem. This suggests that for the author, art is a form of atonement.
As in his earlier work, no form or formal challenge fazes Moore. In The Dangerous Corner, the poems range from longer pieces to terse verses. Take, for example, “Confrontation,” one of the latter, which, for its startling illumination, is reminiscent of Frost’s “For Once Then, Something.”
The pond, brimming with sunlight,
ripples at my feet.
Out there in the silver floats
strangely a patch of darkness,
by the breeze, by light unmoved.
It could be something solid
or else nothing, empty effect.
In my memory, my years,
dark things float.
Shall I confront them
now in this clarity?
I watch the darkness there
in swarms of light.
Empty effect is true poetry’s bane—flash without clarity, paper goblins without darkness, contrived confrontations without wisdom. But here, each poem encounters and addresses its painful kernel without artifice or deflection. Whether the darkness comes to the forefront or dissolves in light, this poet’s eye never wavers.
But, as the speaker tells himself in the poem “Daydeath,” there is a cost to never looking away: “Put on your glasses, Dick! Sharpen this. / No it’s too keen already, the day’s edge: ax, poised, ready to fall.” The ax, the busy toad-killing road, darkness in the pond, a wife’s death, a daughter’s mental instability—these threats never fade.
Yet there are consolations. In “The Poem,” the last of the collection, the speaker rediscovers a larger purpose, a possible new role as his life stretches into old age. As in several other poems, such as “Gulls,” “The Freeze,” “Ducks,” and “Reflections,” the setting is a pond’s edge. Lakes and ponds are a source of inspiration and solace for Moore, serving as a retreat from the noisy human world. Here the central event is the intrusion of people into the speaker’s solitary meditation. Moore’s description of the disturbance is both biting and humorous in its attention to detail.
But bursting suddenly through the fence,
through the private hold I use (how dare they!)
a boy-crowd monster with screaming heads
(I can’t bear to count them) people-fragments
with fat cheeks and castrati voices,
faces that twist into pouts and pimples,
skew-toothed grins under spikes of hair,
filaments swinging from their noses.
Medicine made them, and mismatched parents.
They swarm over the shore, take no notice,
and having obliterated my poem,
they pick up things and into the water
fling fist-sized stones, two-handed stones—
and finally flat little stones that they skip,
charmed at last by the pond’s calm.
“Charmed” is a charged term here. These boys are not being superficially lulled, but rather yielding to the power of the natural world. Moore often addresses nature as a center of mystical insight, where people are the least human and most realized. Modern technology, as metonymized by “medicine,” only makes monsters, creates and nurtures distorted versions of what would otherwise organically arise. But Moore’s view is neither static nor dogmatic. The speaker manages to move from annoyance to generosity, and to recognize his own part in this small drama:
cry out in awe, counting the steps
of the stone on the water, and, as I reach
the fence, “Hey mister, can you do that again?”
Little scientists! But they’re beautiful now.
“No I can’t,” I say.
“How did you do it?”
“I said a prayer.”
The prayer, of course,
was the poem: that poem, which is this poem,
and as the Archangel said, watching God’s level
water: nor was I ever out of it.
There are occasional moments, scattered throughout the book, when Moore’s relaxed confidence, combined with rapid shifts in diction, yield awkwardness: “Between our dreamed real and one’s real dream / a personality grinds out like sausage.” And there are handful that read like broken prose, as in “Transformation”: “They say now what a lousy / family it was. I thought it / was good, basically.” Even more problematical are those poems’ endings that are too flat or ordinary to provide a transcendent, or even satisfactory, conclusion. But Moore’s unique blend of mysticism (mostly mercifully understated), and insight into both the natural world and human domain more than makes up for these faults.
Time and again Moore employs the poem as a kind of prayer, as a means of grappling with grief. His formal gifts and attentive eye invest his subjects with a weight that speaks to the vital importance of the attempt to articulate what is painful, ineffable, or ugly. He refuses to offer up easy solutions. Instead, he advocates something much more difficult—acceptance.