At the age of 95, Richard O. Moore published his second book, which is probably not his last. Like his first, Writing the Silences, the poems have been arranged with the encouragement and editorial help of Brenda Hillman, Garrett Caples, and Paul Ebenkamp; the two are essentially the first two volumes of Moore’s collected works. Moore was part of Kenneth Rexroth’s circle in the 1940s at the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance, but publishing was not as much a priority as his career in public radio and television. Still, in the intervening years he has amassed, according to the preface of Writing the Silences, enough material at least seven full-length collections.
Like his first book, Particulars of Place represents a sample of Moore’s poetry. Editors Caples, Ebenkamp, and Hillman have divided the book into five sections, each with a different aesthetic (the sections, not the editors). As Cedar Sigo describes them in his introduction, “their length and variety give the feel of intense fits of writing issued as separate short books.” In fact, some of the sections are from longer projects, like the fifty prose poems of “d e l e t e,” eleven of which appear in this book. While the poems are not organized chronologically, the shifts of tone and form do seem to nod to a kind of progression through periods, both personal and literary. The first section, “The Particulars of Place,” invokes the entrance and refusal of High Modernism in Joyce and Pound:
Shake the rattle of entrances: “Stately…Buck Mulligan”
descends and languages gather to speak of a world
with nowhere to go except into the open
into the artifice of a known predictable world.
Ezra Pound appears here on the first page too: “a mad old man / in parallel worlds / no history / nor fortune nor clear name to come.” Moore is capturing a spirit that is both historically specific and timeless: where to begin writing poetry in a “known predictable world”—which could describe 1950 as much as 2014—or put another way, how does one answer Pound’s call to “make it new”?
Moore’s answer, at least in the beginning of the collection, is a Modernist one, invoking the circularity and repetition of history: “Same story in a different language told. / Hector dragged through Fallujuah once again.” At other points in this section he breaks into dimeter that feels almost Yeatsian:
Strike the anvil
Shape the wheel
In some ways, this first and titular section of the book recalls the shifting forms of “The Waste Land,” churning quickly through mythologies until it ends—where else?—in the limited perception of the individual mind:
a virtual world of prophetic folly and earthly wisdom
wrapped tight in the lies we tell ourselves
while ignorant of the lies we tell.
Then again, perhaps “individual mind’ isn’t the right word to describe Moore’s consciousness. In most of the sections, he speaks for us in the first person plural or addresses us in second person. These are the poems of social conscience and observation, observing decades of cultural decline (or a downward spiral, if we’re still in a Yeatsian frame of history). The rapid-fire voice of “d e l e t e,” a section of prose poems, addresses a “you” who lives, bewildered, at the mercy of conspiring forces of government, business, and geopolitics:
go bury the dead while the cinema cameras roll : a piece of work : you can’t remember
how you were assigned to tend the cell where conscience lives, rent free.
Come off that pundit’s podium : be nice : that’s all that ever really will be asked of you : meanwhile the password and the stockades appear : underground of course : you will end up in one appropriate to your pedigree and class
you were right about the center Mister Yeats, a new centre is on the stage today a free agent all-pro and promised to the highest bidder : and civilized as god
The last excerpt, with its basketball pun, is representative of the voice of this section, which is simultaneously apocalyptic and playful. These are poems written in the 80s and early 90s, and thus are responding, obliquely it seems, to the atmosphere of the Reagan presidency and the Cold War, though there are few direct references to historical events. Of the fifty in this series, eleven of the poems were included in this book (the first six were printed in Writing the Silences); this editorial practice suggests that the editors think of them as iterations of a similar idea, which is certainly true, but why point out that there are fifty of them if the others are not available in print? I suppose we’ll see the rest of them in Moore’s next book.
Similarly, a section called “Outcry” is a selection of twelve poems from a chapbook of thirty. They’re sonnets, sort of: Moore notes, “the only consistent formal element is that each of the poems consists of 14 lines.” As with “d e l e t e,” this section swerves radically from the preceding poems in its form and tone. In this case, the decline of Moore’s vision to the point of blindness necessitated a new kind of composition. These sonnets, written near the end of a long career of writing, reunite the poet with a tradition that precedes Modernism, one based on the pauses between phrases rather than line breaks on a page. Written primarily by ear, the diction and vocabulary in these poems is sparse and simple in contrast to the rest of the book, as you can hear in “The Familiar Has Taken Leave”:
Responding to a world turned outside in
Requires a fresh agility of will
And a surreal mode of thought, both distant
When the world was visible and real.
The poems about blindness are also the only first-person poems of the collection, as though the poet’s interior vision was too personal to be applied to anyone else. And yet they are preceded by an oddly deprecatory note, which disclaims: “I attempt to write the poems in ordinary language, not in the sense of ordinary and poetic language, but ordinary in the sense of common speech bordering, at times, on cliché.” I wondered, reading this section, if somehow Moore’s inability to see them on the page makes him imagine the poems as more ordinary than they are. After all, “There is no equal to what a page displays / Of fact and fancy, scattered left and right, / Not as a picture of what’s present there / But as a means of making sense of it” is more than “ordinary language.”
This distrust of simplicity is perhaps another part of the Modernist heritage; certainly these poems look simple by comparison to the other sections. But what is fascinating about this collection is the way it gives us an entire life of writing, an entire life of discovery, in miniature; decades race by in each section. And the truth is that aesthetic values change, unless you’re Pound, with the changing circumstances of life; in Particulars of Place, Moore’s work is presented to us in a way that makes these changes over time visible on the page—even if the poet himself cannot see them.
About the Reviewer
Andrew Allport is the author of two collections: the body of space in the shape of a human (New Issues, 2012), and The Ice Ship & Other Vessels (Proem Press, 2009). His poetry and reviews have appeared in numerous national journals, including The Antioch Review, Blackbird, Denver Quarterly and Boston Review; his work can be found online at poetryfoundation.org. He lives in Durango, Colorado.