Reviewed By Ben Rawlins
- Carnegie Mellon (2018)
- 72 pages
As boundaries of glass, windows offer a view of the outside while maintaining a strict separation between what is without and what is within. Yet because of their transparency, this division can often seem pervious, as if the external could penetrate the domestic. Lauren Moseley explores the question of boundaries and their potential permeability in Big Windows, the debut collection from the poet based in Durham, North Carolina. Moseley does not just consider the boundary between outside and inside. Her poems also explore divisions between dream life and reality, animals and humans, belief and doubt, bizarre encounters and everyday events. The opening poem, “Romance,” establishes the collection’s controlling theme. In “Romance,” the speaker is coaxed outside after a storm and attempts to hold hailstones, but they quickly melt. This leads to a meditation on dichotomies: “Heat and ice. Earth and sky. Stop saying why / I can’t have both. I saw them together. / I almost had them.” In the poems that follow, Moseley’s speakers express the desire to “have both,” but they also struggle with established dichotomies found in everyday life and artistic pursuit.
Moseley is a native of the South, and the language and rhythms of folk and country music clearly inform her poetic idiom. Moseley’s diction is simple, direct, and many of the poems appear to work in a straightforward folk register. Yet Moseley often subverts expectations that come with her natural, folksy language and images. For instance, in “When Fog, When Mountain” the speaker sits by an open city window when the “smell of a cloud” enters through a crack. This olfactory encounter moves the speaker to imagine herself traveling through a traditional rural setting in the second stanza of the poem:
My train is now
a country train, cradling coal
Here men masked in soot look
askance or long
for me to bring them babies.
Here my mother
endured five labors after me,
kept on a high shelf.
A country train, coal, moonshine—all makings of a good Southern folk song. But Moseley shows that this classic vision of country life makes women the objects of men’s gazes or mere vessels for childbirth. Moseley’s speaker has no interest in this kind of life, ultimately rejecting this folk vision: “I would marry it, but the cloud smell / is a cruel smell: / filling me with wanderlust, refusing / to touch my face.” Moseley’s diction and simple syntax in “When Fog, When Mountain” is representative of the poetic voice throughout the collection. However, Moseley’s earthy style always welcomes in some kind of twist or subversion, but more in the poem’s subject or theme rather than its language. Moseley’s poems show that a simple style does not preclude wildness or surprise.
The collection is separated into three parts, each offering a distinct experience of the book’s themes while also creating a kind of narrative arc toward self-understanding. The first section creates entry points into the struggle of attempting to hold two disparate things at the same time. This conflict appears most obviously early in the collection in “Self-Portrait as a Beast with Two Backs.” In this poem, the speaker is “of two minds, two mouths, two tongues licking sixty-four teeth.” As Moseley’s notes tell us, the beast with two backs in the title was inspired by Aristophanes’s speech from Plato’s Symposium, but Shakespeare also takes up the term as a euphemism for sexual union. In Symposium, Aristophanes delivers a humorous myth about humanity’s original state. He argues that humans used to be made up of two of everything—eyes, arms, mouths, and so on. Then the gods split each person in two, requiring humans to search for the other half to be made whole again. Thus the poem imagines the dichotomized, boundaried self in grotesque fashion, but the speaker’s twoness is actually an image of wholeness. This artist-speaker then can claim:
I want nothing of that, because I want nothing,
have never wanted, never looked
for another being, never been
more than four legs, two livers,
four kidneys, two chest cavities,
two spines and four eyes glassing—
as real and imaginary
as the worn path of a satellite.
Though the self is divided and doubled, the speaker finds satisfaction in this twoness. As a self-portrait, this poem reveals how a person can discover wholeness within oneself even in the midst of boundaries and divisions that plague everyday experience. But at the end of the first section, the question remains: How can someone find connection with things outside one’s self?
After setting up the conflict of divisions in the first section, the second section dives deeper into inner turmoil, oftentimes moving into the folkloric or entering the realm of dreams. Anthropomorphized animals appear in several poems. This is one way Moseley breaks down the division between human and nonhuman animals, another semipermeable though definite boundary. In “Panther,” the talking feline figure whispers to the speaker as a child sitting on her father’s shoulders. The jackal slinks into “Calling the Animal,” an ominous figure that visits violence on the child who calls him inside. Moseley clearly revels in a swerve to the surreal or jump into the unexpected. “Tail” finds the speaker dreaming she “had a tail like a bobcat skinned / stalked the rooms of a house looking for a place / to inspect myself my tail / it was sexual.” The speaker discovers wildness within through a dreamlike invocation of animal nature. Like “Tail,” Moseley’s poems featuring dreams and visions usually employ fragmented forms that include large spaces between words in a sentence. These forms help show the divisions created between dream and waking life, even if Moseley’s poems attempt to unite them.
Following the conflicts of parts one and two, the speaker discovers more clarity in the collection’s third section. The last poem, “Thanks Be to Big Windows,” culminates in an assertion of self-knowledge, one that comes through fusion of division. In this poem, the speaker claims, “inside and outside / the same if you squint // when I woke up in the morning / I knew exactly what I was.” While in the opening poem the speaker almost holds two disparate things at once, this final poem shows the speaker melding the inside and outside through a “squint.” What is that squint but Moseley’s poetic perspective, a way of seeing that can illuminate the permeability of these common dichotomies. Big Windows recognizes the struggle wrapped up in boundaries, but reveals how poetry—with its blend of language, music, and imagery—can help us reimagine these divisions of human life.
Ben Rawlins is a PhD student in English at Baylor University, where he studies and writes about American poetry and drama from the early twentieth century as well as contemporary poetry.