Guest Poetry Blog # 7 – American poet Dion O’Reilly Features American poet Jim Moore – Part Two of Two

American poet Jim Moore. Photo Credit: Joann Verburg


by Dion O’Reilly

Whatever Else

Whatever else, the little smile on the face of the woman
listening to a music the rest of us can’t hear and a sky at dawn
with a moon all its own. Whatever else, the construction crane
high above us waiting to be told how to do our bidding,
we who bid and bid and bid. Whatever else, the way cook #1
looks with such longing at cook #2. Let’s not be too sad
about how sad we are. I know about the disappearance
of the river dolphins, the sea turtles with tumors.
I know about the way the dead
don’t return no matter how long they take to die
in the back of the police car. I know about the thousand ways our world
betrays itself. Whatever else, my friend, spreading wide his arms,
looks out at the river and says,
“After all, what choice did I have?” After all,
I saw the man walking who’d had the stroke, saw the woman
whose body won’t stop shaking. I saw the frog in the tall grass,
boldly telling us who truly matters. I saw the world
proclaim itself an unlit vesper candle while a crow
flew into the tip of it, sleek black match, burning.

Jim Moore from Prognosis, Graywolf Press, 2021. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Jim Moore has been churning out exquisite poems for decades: author or editor of twelve books, his work appears in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Nation. A reading of his new and selected, Underground, from Graywolf in 2005, follows a thirty-year career fashioning poems that explore the lyric, awakened moment—poems with simple diction and complex ideas that tether the mind to another dimension. Sixteen years later, his latest book, Prognosis (Graywolf 2021) is a tour de force: every poem, cohesive, harmonious, and luminous with discovery.

Prognosis is tightly stitched with motifs: the stilled mind of the moment, distant voices of Tang poets, Renaissance paintings gleaming with chiaroscuro, longing, bridges, and crows, all haunt and enliven this collection of poems. Often, death’s spector either lurks on the sidelines or takes center stage for Moore’s elderly narrator, who seems to view it with both resignation and detachment—a streak of darkness emphasizing life’s brilliance. Written during the pandemic and perhaps despite it, the motifs weave small, personal revelations, which speak, in the way of great poetry, to Everything.

Let’s take a look at  “Whatever Else”, the first poem in his book, featured above, originally published in the New Yorker.

What lover of craft would not be charmed and impressed by the discreet use of anaphora in this poem, the repetition of “Whatever else,” “I know,” “Afterall,” and  “I saw?” Interspersed with this repetition are personifications and anthropomorphisms that link the human and non-human: a sky with a “moon all its own,” a crane waiting to be told “what to do,” “a frog in the tall grass /boldly telling us what really matters…

Of course, there’s music too, for example, the sibilance of “Whatever else, the little smile on the face of the woman/listening to a music the rest of us can’t hear…” But more than anything, with Moore, images and simple descriptions elevate the work into deep feeling and nostalgia. What is more quotidian and lovely than “…the way cook #1/looks with such longing at cook #2…”

The greatest challenge, for me at least, in writing a poem is surprise—the elusive discovery—and one way it is achieved in “Whatever Else” is with devastating line breaks:

…I know about the way the dead
don’t return no matter how long they take to die
in the back of the police car…

Whatever Else” is just one of many lyric poems in the text that ignites the Now with surprising lines like “I saw the world/proclaim itself an unlit vesper candle while a crow/flew into the tip of it, sleek black match, burning” —  a mic-drop ending in the tradition of crow-poetry.

Above all, what I admire about Prognosis—and it is present in “Whatever Else” — is the uncanny balance of what I reluctantly call the Dark and the Light. Indeed, this poem’s title suggests Darkness up front, but emphasizes “whatever else” beyond and beside it: whatever else, the poem urges us to take heed of a vivid list of heartening facts and objects.

Although I could easily understand Prognosis’s popularity among lovers of tender poetry—poetry that does not make us “too sad about how sad we are,” poetry that does not dwell on the trauma of plagues, environmental decline, war, genocide, and emotional scars, Moore’s poems do not shrink from those realities. In “Whatever Else,” for example, nearly all those issues are present, and although the language does not condone such horror, neither does it flinch from naming the world as it is, which, for this reader at least, is a brand of healing acceptance.

Before I end this brief review, I must mention another admirable and unique quality of this book: the many right-aligned epigraphs in italics between book sections, not poems exactly, more like journal entries that capture firefly-moments in jars:

…and later, back home
the dog and I watch how
the October snow falls
like a dream of snow.
We go for deep sighs
and nodding off at the foot
of a strange universe together
in a warm room. An unknown voice
outside the door, and the dog growls a bit.
When she was a puppy
she would have barked.
Now she just turns toward me,
making sure I notice it too:
the strangeness of this world

 Yes, Prognosis reminds us of both the dream-beauty and also the possible dangers of a “strange world.” Late in the book, in the poem “Little Sainthood,” Moore states… “beauty/ and death have made—against all odds—/a life together.”  These lines encapsulate the central, complex theme of Prognosis—the work of a seasoned poet who clearly sees, as Marvin Gay put it, “what’s going on,” and yet, despite that, longs for Life, and most importantly, offers up revelation after revelation with crisp, ignited language and uncanny craft.

By Dion O’Reilly, January, 2023







Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *