PF detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Beach Scene, Guernsey (Children by the Sea in Guernsey) - 1883;

ISSN 
1942-2067


Copyright © 2010 Pirene's Fountain.

TX7-018-906

All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

                                    Photo credit: JoAnn Verburg

The Italian poet, Salvatore Quasimodo once said, "Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal which the reader recognizes as his own." This is true of many poets, and none more so than Jim Moore.

When asked about his poetic style, Moore describes it as "straightforward."

"…I like my 'style' to almost disappear within the force field of the poem."

While it may be true on one level that his style is subsumed by the poem, the same cannot be said of the poet himself. Indeed, Moore inserts himself into his poetry in such a way that the reader is left in no doubt that the subjects and experiences being described are intensely personal.

 

8:03 P.M.

The spread quilt of a humid summer in Umbria.

If there is life after death, it is this.

And she is naked on the bed behind me.

The swallows dipping, then rising again,
refusing to let the sun set all by itself.

Even the whine and rasp of motorcycles.

Even this strange tiredness.

Don't you know where you are?

The pasta is boiling in paradise.

The one dirt road
leads everywhere I need to go.

A naked woman gets up off the bed
and asks, "When do you want to eat dinner?"

The only answer to every question in paradise is

now.


Moore agrees that this personal approach is central to his poetry, though never insular.

"Yes, it is personal and at the same time if it does not generate empathy with a reader it has failed. I'm interested in reading (and writing) poetry that comes pretty directly out of the poet's life."

That empathy is often achieved by placing the reader into a scenario, as observed by the poet, which, even if not personally experienced, is still familiar:

 

On the Day After

               The old woman who lives across the street
runs her vacuum
               on the day after Christmas,
cleaning up after the silence
               of the day before.
Two small geraniums in the window
               lean into one another
like people whispering at a funeral:
               signs of life.


And again, in the more directly-confronting "The History of Roses"…

 

The History of Roses

7 A.M. first frost, the nurse who works all night
walks home, feet splayed gingerly in two directions.
Last night the old man who sells papers by day and flowers by night
sold us roses, five for a dollar. And the world
sways a little on its stem at how people have to shuffle
               to survive.

And now there are roses on your desk, concentrated slices of dawn,
darkened, folded into layers, veined and bunched together,
coil of soft petals above the delicate green leaves.
And the history of roses is the history of the work whistle,
the florist for whom the holidays are a nightmare,
whose children are asleep by the time he's home Christmas Eve,
who stands alone in the kitchen he remodeled and eats a dish of ice
               cream
before he goes to bed: he is still young when his first heart attack
               comes.
There is no end to the history of roses, to blooming and quiet,
to what withers and returns. All knowledge hurts:
and when we walk out of a theater and buy roses
there have to be tears and oceans and blind trust
in the clot of a dark red substance on he end of a cut stem.


These scenarios may be easy to relate to, but the observations and themes explored by Moore often push the poem's boundaries in new and unexpected directions that leave the reader with that delicious contrast of the familiar and the new, of being both comfortable and challenged.

"It's a style that stays open to the little things in life but can make a larger statement when necessary."

This is most obvious in his grouping together of shorter poems into a larger piece:

 

Love in the Ruins

1
               I remember my mother toward the end,
folding the tablecloth after dinner
               so carefully,
as if it were the flag
               of a country that no longer existed,
but once had ruled the world.

2
               7 AM and the barefoot man
               leaves his lover's house
                              to go back to his basement room
               across the alley. I nod hello,
                              continuing to pick
               the first small daffodils
               which just yesterday began to bloom.

3
               Helicopter flies overhead
reminding me of that old war
               where one friend lost his life,
one his mind,
               and one came back happy
to be missing only an unnecessary finger.

4
               I vow to write five poems today,
look down and see a crow
               rising into thick snow on 5th Avenue
as if pulled up by invisible strings,
               and already
there is only one to go.

5
                              Survived
               another winter: my black stocking cap,
                              my mismatched gloves,
               my suspicious, chilly heart.


Mr. Moore grew up in Illinois in the heart of America's Midwest and began writing in the mid 1960s. The local poetry scene may not have been as active as New York or San Francisco at the time, but it was not devoid of influences. Vachel Lindsey had grown up in the area, while Robert Bly and James Wright were active and influential in the region during these years, both writing with a specific Midwestern focus.

"This was very exciting to me and helped encourage me to go my own way."

The turbulent years of the sixties and seventies were fertile ground for artists and poets in particular. Rebellion against the establishment was a right of passage for many, Jim Moore amongst them (he spent a period in prison for refusing conscription).

"I was carving out my own space, arguing in essays (and in poems to a certain extent) with my elders… I also think that I thought one should be angry/rebellious."

This rebelliousness comes across as an intense passion in his early work:

 

At the Laundromat

I sat at the very end of the laundromat,
so old there wasn't even Muzak, no shiny pink washing machines,
the ceiling full of peeling paint like a book with its pages burned.
My eyes felt thick, my sight poured out of me in columns, focused,
I saw, say "saw" slowly three times and you will feel the odd heft of
               this vision:
saw, saw, saw,
the way I felt my third night out of prison when we walked through a
               stubble field
to the river I had never seen by daylight and sat there
in the cool October night, the river below us down a steep bank,
sat there watching the blackness for many minutes,
felt the black motion of my own heavy body for the first time in ten
               months
and in the laundromat it came again, everything there
heavy with use, the huge ceiling fan, black, encrusted with dirt, each
               blade thick with it
and at the other end the short man in the green shirt who ran the place,
one of those puke green knit shirts buttoned to the top,
he sorted laundry, slowly, very slowly, taking each piece out of the
               dryers,
shaking it once, holding it to the light, shaking it again,
then (if it were coat or shirt) lifting it to his nose
and smelling the armpits, smelling each one carefully
and finally hanging them in a long row ready for pickup.

It was late, almost 10P.M., and he called out to another laundromat.
At first he seemed happy and then angry as he complained bitterly,
how they hadn't cleaned the machines,
how he would shake them up good soon, how they listened to the
               radio-
no more radios! - it was quarter to ten and they still had time to do the
               windows.

My whole body then was with his body, I felt the rising anger in us
               both,
heavy, weighted, each in our clumsy bodies. I could feel
the pull of him, as if dragging me across the dance floor,
teaching me a new step at dancing class, no
future, no future, our hands sunk to the elbows in soap,
twisting shirts into rags, sinking the rags one by one,
cleaning the dry grains of soap off the table tops one last time,
removing the thumb prints from the plate glass,
pulling back the tab on the cash register, making the room black.


But even at that time, Moore's poetry reflected the rebellion of the times through personal experience. In the haunting "For You," despite its conclusion, there is an undercurrent of defiance tempered by uncertainty, as idealism confronts reality:

 

For You (excerpt)

I know it sounds too much like poetry,
but it was dusk that made me a felon,
a winter evening in Moline, Illinois.
The next day I quoted Whitman
to my draft board,"Dismiss
whatever insults your own soul,"
and sent my draft card back to them.
I can still feel the cold metal
on the mailbox, see the park
with its oaks, the black winter sky
so close, so distant,
as I dropped the letter inside
and turned quickly away.

For two years I'd argued the War,
drinking instant coffee with a man
who wore the same blue velour shirt so often
it's all I remember of him now.
We took turns arguing one way,
then another about, "what to do."
We sat in the basement kitchen
of a boarding house.
Sometimes we yelled,
sometimes we sat silently, our hands
around our mugs of coffee,
our hearts confused. Deferments
from the draft meant we were the men
who could afford to choose a future.
And we had so wanted to go on drifting,
floating on the moment's shifting current
as we learned to give the poems we tried to write
a chance to rise, waveringly,
into their own shapes, existences
born of dreams, not arguments.

If it meant going to prison,
so be it. There, too, there would be
ordinary sights that would sustain me.
Or so I told myself
in that moment when I believed so deeply
in the strangely calming power
that came from seeing clearly
into the heart of everyday life.
I stood at the top of the hill, alone,
surrounded by what I loved.
I looked down towards the Mississippi,
black except where a bridge curved
through the night, and I did not know
what the future would bring
or what it was inside me
that would not let go
of my two new words, "For you."


In his later work, this passion is less confronting, but still present in a more refined form.

"I love the passion in those early poems but they are not poems I would write now."

In his latest volumes Lightning at Dinner (Graywolf Press, 2005) and the soon to be released Invisible Strings (Graywolf Press) we see a more reflective poet. This does not mean that he is less observant of the world around him or involved with his themes, but there is a subtlety in imagery that was not always present in his earlier work. These two collections contain some brilliant work; the themes are captivating, the imagery beautiful and the language often hauntingly eloquent.

 

Pompeii

At the motel, near where the dead
haven't moved in centuries,
there is a pool. A boy carries
a tall lily, as if it is a sacred lamp
the wind could blow out.
His mother sleeps by the pool's edge.
Mama, he calls out,
and louder, Mama.
This time she wakes.
The son gives his mother the lily,
then runs away, as if
afraid he will be caught
loving someone that much,
as if the lava is about to flow again
and the only way to stay alive
is to run fast his whole life long,
never stopping, never looking back
at the one face his life has given him
no choice but to love.


An early, dominant theme in Lightning at Dinner, is his mother's final years, covering her deteriorating mental health and eventual death. Moore explores these events through different scenes from their life together, especially towards the end. In this way, the reader is able to build a multi dimensional picture of a complex relationship. As always with Moore's writing, the experience is intensely personal as the poet explores his own, sometimes conflicting, emotions:

 

Brief Lives (1)

An anthology called Brief Lives. Not the writings of people who lived
briefly, as I had thought. But rather the lives of the famous, written about
briefly. It's hard not to admire them. They came, they conquered, they left
the scene entirely. Their lives make a sort of graph: perfect.
And the rest of us? Nothing brief about them, these lives of ours: so and
so was born. His grandmother befriended him. He hid in lilac bushes. He
called Emma Jean Kendell a bad name. He was angry, then afraid. He loved badly, then well, then both at once. His father disappeared in his own time. A cardinal sang. He went to visit his dying mother, letting himself in with his own key. She is taking a shower. He listens to the water running from another room. It has taken them both forever—all their lives—to get to this point. There's no way to be brief, no way to get it over quickly.

Brief Lives (2): Warning

6 A.M., the hour of the serious fishermen
who stand quietly in orange slickers
as they sway slightly in the small boats
far out to sea. Those ancient warnings,
the pelicans, patrol the world closer at hand.
It is the hour when the nurse tries to wake my mother,
then lets her fall back again
into the sea. Some fish are not worth
the keeping. Asleep again, asleep again,
her heart rejoices. And the great escape continues,
alone, in darkness, far under the surface.

Brief Lives (3): Vacation

See how everything is a secret?
his dying mother says to him in the dream.
She had taken the oil, greased her body
and was ready to swim far out,
all the way to the end.
So this is what they mean
by vacation, he thinks to himself,
awake now, looking at the sea.
So this is what they mean:
green, turquoise, silver, the ruin
and rise again of waves,
colors dying inside other colors.

Brief Lives (4)

It happens like any other poem,
only snow falls
and at the sight of it,
she smiles.
A woman dying,
yet happy to be alive?
Just try to keep her out of this poem
in which all things
fall together as if one unending
snowstorm. Unending mother:
never be anywhere else
but here.

Brief Lives (5): Forgive Him

He simply did not see how the universe opening
inside him was the same as the river inside his mother
unwinding at its own pace, taking her away,
following the only course it knows. He did not see
that even the love he feels for her does not belong to him.
He is of the species that wants to believe in a separate self.
Forgive him this greed, this unending need
to make her life his own.


When asked if it was difficult to share this intensely personal time, Moore replied:

"Though the poems are indeed personal they are about a universal experience—the death of a beloved figure in one's life—so they did not feel personal in the sense that they were only mine. In fact, quite the opposite: they felt like a bridge to other people."

Again, we see the poet's ability to gain the empathy of the reader through the reflection of his own experience.

 

Lightning at Dinner

Basta! shouts the waiter,
then laughs each time the sky
is rent, delighted.
"Such a long journey,"
my failing mother said,
her voice calm and steady,
crossing seven time zones.
Light gone,
you and I sit in the dark. Our hands
touch, finally, hours
after our argument.
This sudden warmth, palm
to palm: as when thunder stops,
the suddenness of all that silence.
Or the aftershock—deafening—
when an only son
is given to understand
his mother's business with him
is completely done.


His later works also explore death, and our engagement with it, as a broader theme. In an article he wrote for click! photography changes everything1 about his wife (celebrated photographer JoAnn Verburg), he says:

"As a poet, I believe that the most challenging conversations I have in my work are often with death."

And then elaborates…

"I think when I was young and hadn't been through the deaths (other than my grandmother's) of people I loved I didn't really know how to approach it; but I knew instinctively (as so many poets do) that death is a lodestar: to see one's life through the eyes of one who knows he is going to die is to see it with so much more gratitude and compassion. And of course it connects one more deeply to others since we are all going to die."


 

The Four Stages Of Love (excerpt)

4
               I want to believe it
when the pine tree out my window
               tells me I don't have to be afraid
for my own death, not even,
               Love, for yours.

Of All Places

1
               After the death
of our young friend's brother,
               she looks at me differently,
almost with suspicion,
               as if there was something about this life
I had deliberately not told her.

2
               That all calm is a false calm
I keep learning again and again.
               And yet,
the sound of water falling on stone
               early one warm June morning,
in this world of all places.

3
               Her friends come now
every day since the death of her brother
               to walk the floor along with her
as she sweeps up
               in the little café
where we came to know her
               before the grief of her true life began.


This exploration, through others, of our shared, greater reality has been a feature of Moore's writing from the beginning.

"The challenge has always been to use the ego to see through the ego to the larger world beyond. This is perhaps easier to do when including other people in the poems."



January 1, The Beach (excerpt)

The daughter wears a long T-shirt.
She's four at most, in search
of the shallowest wetness she can find.
She already knows "no,"
and, "careful now." She already
believes the warning about a bad world, a wave
on top of a shark on top of an over-
your-head mindless tangle of salt water
and sea wind and going down forever.
The whole point of the game is to hold
a plastic bucket as a prop and skip
to the edge of the world as she knows it.
Her older brother is short-haired, pale, intense: he's just
too busy to waste time on her. His work:
to order the most excellent and perfect shells
to come towards him out of the surf.
She would scoop them up
in indiscriminate fistfuls. His passion
is for the perfect glistening shape,
wet and gasping for air like a face
under tears. One at a time, as if shelving
expensive delicacies, he places them in his pail.
Mother's butt is on the blanket,
her toes dug in under shells and sand.
Her wandering glance refuses
all loyalty: she looks from magazine
to horizon, spends more time
eyeing her nails carefully
than watching her children.
The delicious sag of her body
says it all: she's on this beach
for the laziness. Let him
do it this time, the first
child watch of the day, the year.

It is time now
for me to go home. The show is over.
The family on the beach stays behind.
They have their fish
and their day at the shore before them.
Later, I will go to the grocery store
where the young woman works
whose baby died. She decided to stay
in this small town by the sea.
"That way I'll always know the names
of the streets where he would have walked,"
she said once when I was leaving
with my milk and bread. "Thank you
for listening," she said as I left.
As if her grief and her love were things
she'd owed me, a kind of debt.


Other recent poems also echo back to Moore's earlier work. The parallels between "Soon" (penned in 2002 in the lead up to the Iraq war) and earlier poems regarding Vietnam are obvious, though the theme is less personal and more universal - the shared, greater reality.


Soon

It's really over now, summer, I feel
the next thing in the heaviness
of the grapes as they stagger downwards
toward the ripeness
they were born for.
Someone with more power than us
can't take his mind off war.
He wants us to believe power is knowledge.
No one ever told him the truth,
how bewildered he looks, how sad,
and how desperately he seems to long
for danger. Meanwhile, light surrenders
by 6:30 P.M. and rusty barbed-wire fences reappear
where once summer grass covered them
as an ocean covers a treasure sunk long ago.
Not an ounce left of that summer heat that wants of us
only the pleasure of our shirtless company,
no more red poppies like little fragile gods
that have dedicated themselves to ditches
and other lost places where gods
so rarely appear. Yes, the gods have shriveled up
and though the man who sells ice cream in the mercato
still stands behind his chocolate, his lime,
his luscious vanilla and hopes for the best,
in his heart he knows.
Soon the man with the power will point his finger
and husbands will be ordered to put on their uniforms.
Soon, tears and ash, bent heads, fields with the look
of raw wounds, raw wounds with the look
of abandoned fields.
It is the season when olive trees bend heavily
in the cold wind, scraping the ground
as if inviting earth to touch them.
Is it too late for that now? Too late
for one living creature
to touch another? The grandmother
holding the baby by the fountain has no choice
but to remember how happy
it is possible to be. The street cleaner
has the thoughtful brooding look
of a philosopher whose work has been unjustly ignored
for years. He drags his broom behind him
past the drugstore, past the newspaper stand,
past the shadowy boxes loaded down
with oranges from Morocco, cherries from Bari,
walks slowly back and forth across the square
refusing to clean what will only get dirty again.


These days, Moore and Verburg spend some time each year in Spoleto, Italy. A genuine love of this passionate and chaotic country and its people comes through clearly in his work.

"I like to think that Italy has made this Scottish/English boy a more open and available person, more ready to allow the present moment to have its sway. Italians in Umbria are a fairly melancholy and soulful lot (to generalize broadly) but so very available for the present moment to lead them astray into joy."


 

After Dinner

               For many years, unable to speak the language,
I have sat silently at tables with Italians.
               Tonight, too. But this time I don't mind.
Joy enters the voices. Then sadness.
               We sit in moonlight, drink wine
until I understand every last word.
               After dinner, you and I do the walk
around the old fortress where power
               had once seemed the point of things.
The sound of crickets and a samba band, faintly,
               from the Communist Party
party, far down the hill. Our dog
               seems to lead the way, but really,
everything leads everything else
               around the abandoned fortress.


That attitude of "more ready to allow the present moment to have its sway" comes through incredibly vividly in "Blood in our Headlights, Car Wrecked, the Boar Dead."

 

Blood in our Headlights, Car Wrecked, the Boar
                              Dead

Out of the darkness, men come
               with knives. They work quickly,
muttering back and forth.
               By the time the police arrive,
the boar is gone. The foreigners,
               each one of us, stand around
the wrecked car,
               everyone still alive.

               And then
the moment becomes a story,
               cut open as completely as the boar had been,
all of us making use of it
               in whatever ways we need
until our lives and the names
               we were given never to let go of,
go.
               And even laughter and even our fears:
gone,
               along with the boar and our bewilderment,
traceless now inside the unending sound
               of crickets, the brown dust
soaked in blood.


Comparisons between his two "homes" are inevitable, as this tongue-in-cheek piece shows…

 

Tuesday

               Some days, I am capable
only of caring about my new chestnut-colored shoes
               with the red laces, which in Italy
seem demure, but in Minnesota
               will give off the faint whiff
of a clown gone overboard, drowning
in his own ridiculous sea.


Indeed, for someone who has explored in such depth the temporal aspect of humanity, Moore's sense of humour often comes as a surprise. This is rarely an end to itself however, but is used to emphasise more earnest themes such as mortality:

 

Get Used to It, Being

The day after the Day of the Dead
where do you put the bones
you don't need, the paint, the wig, the circles
in black around the eyes, the dead-white flesh?
I don't mind the dead,
when they are not yet fully grown,
knocking politely at the door. They want
a little sweetness, arriving costumed
in the skirt of not-being, wearing the smeared cape
that drapes what is and reveals what is not.
Trick or treat! Give or be soaped!
In greed and fear, in death's near light,
in need: get used to it, being.
The dead stand at the door and hold out their bowls,
little monks begging for more life;
and this one night we do not turn away
from how the dead need us to come to the door
and smile. We say, good costume, we say,
what can we give you from our still warm hands?


Or cultural variations between his chosen countries…

 

On the Train to Venice

The first and least important mistake
was to take the train on Sunday, September 1st,
the last day of vacation for millions of Italians.
Though the train was packed,
we had thought to bring sandwiches.
We ate while everyone around us—sitting, standing,
filling every possible inch of floor space—
went profoundly silent and watched
as if we were demonstrating a new technique
for brain surgery, one never tried before,
gone horribly wrong.

Not long after we finished, out of nowhere
came sandwiches, water, and fruit,
every last bit of it offered all around,
especially to those who had brought
nothing with them. Such kindness
and pleasure, such gratitude, except
on the part of the two Americans
who had eaten their fill alone,
in silence, as if the world was empty
of everything but themselves.


Moore has had a long and successful career as a poet, author and teacher. Over that time, he has experienced an incredible range of personal, social and cultural development and change. But it is his talent of being able to open himself to experience, to recognise and personalise the universal, and enable the reader to realise them as his own that has made him so successful at his art. One thing that is obvious, from his earliest work through to his most recent, Moore has never lost his fascination or passion for the life that surrounds him and the poetry it generates in him. As he puts it:

"At some point you have to decide whether you want a career in poetry (in which case you should pack your bag and go to New York) or a life in poetry in which case I really think you need to become as porous as possible and open to the whole world of poetry, letting passion guide you all the way."

Jim Moore is the author of five previous collections of poetry, including The Freedom of History and The Long Experience of Love. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and in many other magazines and anthologies. Moore has received numerous awards and fellowships from the Bush Foundation, The Loft, the McKnight Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. He teaches at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs, as well as online through the University of Minnesota Split Rock Arts Program. He is married to the photographer JoAnn Verburg. They live in Saint Paul, Minnesota and Spoleto, Italy.


Tony Walbran
October, 2010

 

Pirene’s Fountain thanks Jim Moore for permission to use the poems and excerpts related to this feature and interview.  We are also grateful for the talents of JoAnn Verburg for the photographs in the feature.

Also, we thankCatherine Shteynberg, Public Relations & Marketing Coordinator Smithsonian Institution Archives, for her assistance with this feature.

We are indebted to all the publishers of Jim Moore’s book, listed below:

 

POEMS

From THE NEW BODY (University of Pittsburg Press, 1975)
The History of Roses
At the Laundromat
From THE FREEDOM OF HISTORY (Milkweed Editions, 1988)
For You

From THE LONG EXPERIENCE OF LOVE (Milkweed Editions, 1995)
January 1, The Beach

 
                                  Photo credit: JoAnn Verburg

From Lightning at Dinner (Graywolf Press, 2005)
8:03 P.M.
Pompeii
Brief Lives (1)
Brief Lives (2): Warning
Brief Lives (3): Vacation
Brief Lives (4)
Brief Lives (5): Forgive Him
Lightning at Dinner
Soon
Get Used to It, Being
On the Train to Venice

From Invisible Strings (Graywolf Press)
On the Day After
Love in the Ruins
The Four Stages Of Love
Of All Places
Birthday
After Dinner
Blood in our Headlights, Car Wrecked, the Boar
Dead
Tuesday

 

1 Click! Photography Changes Everything is the online magazine of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative (http://click.si.edu/)

Please click here to read the interview with Jim Moore