Monday, April 18, 2011

Epistolary Review: Invisible Strings, Jim Moore (Greywolf Press, 2011)


Dear (r),

At one point in my French onion soup recipe (post-chopping up ten onions while wearing swimming goggles, pre-pouring in an entire bottle of chardonnay), one must stand over the stove for forty minutes and stir the onions without stopping.

It is a tedious ritual, but the soup is cheap and keeps the sack of onions from taking root in the crisper.  Moreover the recipe connects me to my imagined sense of heritage with a minimum of ingredients and feats of culinary magic.  (A favorite cousin once gave me the family recipe for cheesecake thusly: my mother would milk the cow, then leave the milk on the countertop under stones.  With whatever we did not slice to eat, she would make the cake.)

Today, dear (r), while I stood over the stove stirring, I balanced Jim Moore’s Invisible Strings on my stomach and paged through half of it.  It wasn’t what I had expected to read, but the volume’s neo-belletristic Americana aesthetic plus the fact that Jim Moore looks like my Pop Pop made it seem comforting, and let me tell you, to an almost-French person making onion soup at midnight, that’s a real game-changer.  And indeed the text was comforting, but not necessarily in the ways I had imagined it might be.  Comforting was the clarity with which I could imagine disliking many of the poems if I heard them read aloud in public.  Comforting, too, was the failure of this realization to muddy at all the pleasures of the poems read quickly in a too-small kitchen where I added salt to make the onions sweat (they did) and sugar to help them brown (they didn’t). 

Most comforting of all, dear (r), is Moore’s ability to portray the intense anxiety that comes with a life well loved.  “I want to believe it,” Moore writes in The Four Stages of Love, “I don’t have to be afraid/for my own death, not even,/Love, for yours” (40).  Moore reminds us, in Above All, Don’t Forget, “to worry about what you do deserve,/what you don’t” (41).  A short poem entitled Waiting to Take Off simply mentions the superstitious act of “try[ing] not to listen to the directions/to the emergency exits” (23).  And this is where I revise my earlier claim, (r), the one about the comfort I took in an imagined annoyance encountered were I ever to hear Moore share some of these poems in front of a microphone.  I think, after all, I would forgive the attention to Nature, to Italy, to Love, to Age, to Minnesota, because Moore is humble in his wisdom.  And more than humble, he is panicked, and calm, and in love, for, as he writes in Of All Places, “That all calm is a false calm//I keep learning again and again” (44).  Perhaps these poems then, as they throw us back—to ancient Eastern poets, to ancient Eastern poets badly translated by white men with moustaches—act, in a way, as false calms.  Like love feels.  Like a thing cooked to the root.

Write me soon,


Dear R,

You say it is a tedious ritual but soup is cheap & I believe you! You have always been an incomparable vision in swimming goggles. I aspire to generosity, which is already your gift; mine is something lesser. I aspire to it particularly in the case of Invisible Strings, Jim Moore's recent book of poetry. You will notice I have refrained, for example, from twisting your innocent observations on tedious rituals & cheap soup into a judgment of Moore's poetics. As with so many collections written under the sign of Japanese poets with a gift for formal brevity (in this case, Saigyo Hoshi, a poet of the twelfth century, often, as you say badly translated by white men with moustaches), this collection makes use of short stanzas, generally, & what appear to be intermittent syllabics: "I have the vice/of courting poems" (9), Moore writes. He does not lie.

Divided into five sections, each concerned with ideas of place, Moore's poems move from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Spoleto, Italy, surveying their territory in a style that Ron Silliman might call Quietist & that you have (more entertainingly) summed up as "neo-belletristic Americana." I agree wholeheartedly that what one might look for in a collection like this amounts to something like "comfort" or "clarity," a calm that may be, as you say, as Moore says, “a false calm.” Nonetheless, there are certainly some amusing insights scattered about: "Everyone is always younger than me/and more beautiful. Actually/this arrangement works" (56). & I cannot find it in myself to sneer at Moore’s sincerity. If you want comfortable poems, poems of domestic epiphany, poems in which the fiddling of the "Last fall crickets" merely makes it "impossible not to write/one more poem" (63), you could do much worse than Jim Moore.

It is not wrong to want these things! But I do not want them--or, no, that's disingenuous--everyone wants them. But I want them in poetry only rarely. That is, I want clarity more often than I want comfort but I am suspicious of them both.  The crickets do not care whether we write poetry. It is our own silly little tragedy that we are desperately in need of crickets! I suppose what I wanted from this collection is the thing I tend to want from most collections: crickets stranger & bolder than the ones I found here. (In a grumpier mood, I might be inclined to diagnose the problem as self-indulgence but I have pledged generosity & I will keep on chasing that pleasant ghost.) Perhaps what you see here, inter linea, as it were, is the discomfort with sentiment you have often teased me about. There's rather a lot of sentiment here: "He stole forsythia./He lived for love./He never got caught" (5). Much sentiment--but without those palliatives I need in order to bear it: distance or judgment, touches of well-placed irony or verbal & formal acrobatics. I myself am cooked to the root, dear R. That Hawk & a Hacksaw album's on repeat & here I sit in my risible state, perched atop my lily-pad, the flames issuing from my mouth, the lotus smirking in the cup of my outstretched hands. You may commence laughing with all

quickness & jouissance,