DECEMBER 2003/JANUARY 2004
DAN CHIASSON

WHAT COLOR IS JERBOA FUR?

MARIANNE MOORE’S POEMS OF GRAVITY AND DEPTH EXIST ALONGSIDE DELIGHTFUL VERSES ABOUT PET PARROTS AND YOGI BERRA; AS HER PLACE IN THE CANON IS RECONSIDERED, ONE HOPES HER EASY CHARM WILL NOT ECLIPSE HER ENDURING GENIUS.

DISCUSSED: Linguistic Fantasies, Change, Animals (Both Armored and Camouflaged), Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Distance, Monkey-Piloted Giraffes, Prudishness, Ezra Pound, Basilisks, Word-Masonry, Adages, Joseph Cornell, Launcelot Barca Fangs, Fish, Surrogacy, “The other Brooklyn poet,” Prudishness, Water Closets, Rumps, Mongoose Civique, Yogi Berra, Grace Shulman, Observations, Yeats, Santa Claus

“I know more of farm life,” Ezra Pound said of Robert Frost’s second volume, North of Boston, “than I did before I had read his poems. That means I know more of ‘Life.’”

In Marianne Moore we learn more about the habits of jerboas. Moore preferred scarcities to common things, the filigreed to the plain, “fastidiousness” to vulgarity. In place of the world at large she gives us curios and whatnots, rhinoceros horns, candelabra, eggshell goblets, the pangolin, the plumet basilisk, the ostrich. You can’t read her without thinking of Whitman, that other Brooklyn poet, whose radical amplitude is so unlike Moore’s petri-dish and eyedropper scrutiny. Whitman, “no stander above men and women or apart from them,” represents the beauty of immersion, while Moore represents the beauty of remaining scrupulously, attentively apart. It is no surprise she loved zoos and circuses, where the distance between rapt subject and tantalizing object is made material by bars and barriers. She is exquisitely the poet of what you cannot touch, or to put it another way, of what even in touching you cannot touch.

Her levels of fineness are infinite. In a single short poem (“No Swan So Fine”), she will move, with characteristic winnowing attentiveness, from a Louis XV candelabrum to the decorative swan upon it, from the neck of the swan to the collar around it to the gold on the collar, each detail more tactile and immediate than the last:

“No water so still as the
     dead fountains at Versailles.” No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
     as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
     candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins and everlastings,
     it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers—at ease and tall. The king is dead.

Strange that what we discover lodged most deeply within the gilt and chintz is a phrase, a language-object: “The king is dead.” Moore’s word-masonry reveals how material, how thinglike, words can be, and vice versa. This poem is not about candalabra, of course, but rather about the networks of power and property within which candalabra come to mean, and the fate of their meanings after those networks unravel. Which is why the poem begins and ends with things said, statements made: the first a trouvé from the New York Times Magazine, May 10, 1931, the last a commonplace. From possession to dispossession: the Times quote, like the swan, wears a “toothed gold collar” of quotation marks to show it belongs to someone, while the commonplace is, well, common. (Is it going too far to say that the poem moves, like history, from the rhetoric of aristocracy to that of democracy?)

In my used paperback copy of the old Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, someone has written next to this poem, “Art outlasts politics.” Whether it does or not, it would be naïve to accept the testimony of a work of art on the question. But Moore’s poems always tempt those who would reduce them to slogans. Like Frost, she is both attracted to and repelled by adages: “The king is dead.” Is it true, as she claims in “The Pangolin,” that “humor saves a few steps, it saves years”? True that “The power of the visible is / the invisible”? Perhaps; it would depend what one meant, it would depend on context and inflection and tone, all those subtleties of placement and timing that draw us back to the poems themselves. Moore’s adages have a gorgeously unsteadying, agitating, and un-serene presence in the poems whose forward energies they block. This eddying of insight around adage, of feeling around knowledge (or, better, knowingness), is one of her delights.

Adages are little linguistic machines, and Moore loved machines. “A thing so mechanically perfect as a battleship is always a pleasure to me,” she said in 1932, blissfully ignorant of the ends served by its mechanical perfection. She carried unfinished poems around with her on a springloaded clipboard, and kept a small trapeze in her apartment. She liked armored and camouflaged animals, and seemed to think of beauty as fossilized terror. In “The Paper Nautilus,” “thin glass shell” of the nautilus is at once cradle and frieze and fortress:

     […] the intensively
     watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,—
     leaving its wasp-nest flaws
     of white on white, and close-

     laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
     a Parthenon horse,
     round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
     is the only fortress
     strong enough to trust to.

It takes the ferocity of a mother’s love and the peril that a mother’s love counteracts to make the Nautilus’s shell (or the wasp’s nest, or the poem, printed on paper, called “The Paper Nautilus”). The extraordinary, simultaneous beauty of both poem and shell is, here, a prophylactic against worldly danger that has itself been intricately formed intricately by the world’s genius for reducing fortresses to calcine.

It is a fable of domesticity, weirdly strong yet hugely fragile. Moore never met her father; having suffered a mental breakdown while she was in utero, he was institutionalized by the time of her birth. She grew up with her mother and brother in the home of her maternal grandfather, a minister, first outside of St. Louis and later in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Something in her seems to have frozen in childhood, never to thaw; she is often the child stunned by sudden domestic absences, silences, and frigidities. Like Joseph Cornell, whose work she loved, she made a precisely, mathematically modern art out of discarded Victoriana. Also like Cornell, she lived into old age with her mother, a strong-willed woman with opinions on poetry to which Moore deferred, even after Moore had helped reinvent the art out of whole cloth. The childlike wonder before all contraptions, gizmos, and toys bound Cornell and Moore, but Moore was ever more sociable, playful, and industrious than the more reclusive Cornell. This spirit was present in her letters from Bryn Mawr, which she entered in 1905, to her brother Warner, then at Yale, and home to her mother. These must be some of the weirdest letters ever written. Here is Bonnie Costello’s description:

In the early letters, Marianne most often takes the name “Fangs” (varied, for example, as “General Hamilcar” or “Launcelot Barca Fangs”), “Gator” or “Uncle” and “Brother”—to her mother and brother, respectively. Warner is most often “Biter,” “Toad” and “Turtle,” and their mother is “Fawn,” “Mouse” or “Bunny”—and often referred to as Warner’s and Marianne’s mischievous child. Marianne and Warner often referred to themselves by the same names (“Weaz,” “Pidge”) and even more often as the same species (usually dogs), and all three—although especially Warner and Marianne—are occasionally “Fish.”

Whatever the uses of disguise (and they are many), what must be remarked first is the tremendous warmth that emanated from this intimate play. In their struggle to make the very notion of identity palatable, Moore’s family canted its applications this way and that.

The pathology here was obvious (it’s never much fun watching people infantilize themselves), but what is more remarkable was the collaborative troping upon name and role, the sense that language makes, rather than mimics, reality. The three of them—mother, Warner, and Marianne—were siblings in a real way, raised together by Mrs. Moore’s father in her childhood home. Their epistolary fantasies were a way of acknowledging how families recrystallize in the aftermath of trauma.

I suspect Moore’s poems always served this essentially compensatory function, replacing father, mother (since Mrs. Moore was a kind of sister) and later, lover and child. Surrogacy is a theme that ran through her life. She wore mostly hand-me-downs (“from richer friends,” writes Elizabeth Bishop) and her Brooklyn apartment “was crowded with furniture that had obviously come from an older, larger home.” This sense of surrogacy, indeed, inadequate surrogacy, partly explains her deliberately slight subjects. Just as the small two-bedroom near Fort Greene Park could not hold a life’s, two lives’, contents, so her poems couldn’t quite expand to fit the surpluses of wit and intellect, the surpluses of sensibility that they were asked to hold. When we hear Moore straining against her strict syllabics, wringing every last drop of meaning out of a decorative clock, we are attending to the immensely moving spectacle of a person overwhelmed by how overwhelming she finds herself to be. Her forms, like Emerson’s, could never quite bear her power.

Moore was a prude, like Eliot, but unlike Eliot her prudishness was primarily directed at herself. That said, if you found yourself entangled in Moore’s draconian self-governance, you felt it. There is a famous episode involving Bishop’s sublime poem “The Roosters” and her use in it of the phrase “water closet.” Moore and her mother read the poem, objected to the phrase, and undertook a vigorous grassroots campaign to get Bishop to strike it or replace it. Moore’s letter to the younger poet is one of the classic repudiations of “unprudishness” in literature:

Regarding the water-closet, Dylan Thomas, W. C. Williams, e. e. cummings, and others, feel that they are avoiding a duty if they balk at anything like unprudishness, but I say to them, “I can’t care about all things equally, I have a major effect to produce, and the heroisms of abstinence are as great as the heroisms of courage, and so are the rewards.” I think it is to your credit, Elizabeth, that when I say you are not to say “water closet” you go on saying it a little… and it is calculated to make me wonder if I haven’t mistaken a cosmetic patch for a touch of lamp-black, but I think not. The trouble is, people are not depersonalized enough to accept the picture rather than the thought. You saw with what gusto I acclaimed “the mermaid’s pap” in Christopher Smart, but few of us, it seems to me, are fundamentally rude enough to enrich our work in such ways without cost. If I tell mother there is a feather on her dress and she says, “On my back?” I am likely to say, “No. On your rump,” alluding to Cowper’s hare that “swung his rump around.” But in my work, I darn’t risk saying, “My mother swung her rump around.”

Every good poet has her own strict sense of decorum. What kind of habitat is a poem? What will thrive there, what will starve? But Moore’s aesthetic decorum is imported, wholesale, from her sense of social and personal propriety. This is surprising: most people are a little different in person than their imaginative personae. Not Moore. And yet what is striking about Moore’s objection to “water closet” (and there is, of course, a little affectionate fooling around in it) is just how rich an imaginative position it staked out. We think of poetic imagination as a lavishing, indulgent instrument, but in Moore abstinence bore abundant fruit.

It is difficult to understand how Moore, so strictly “abstinent,” could, late in life, have become such a spectacle. In the bizarre eyeblink of her celebrity, when she showed up in Seventeen and Ladies Home Jounal, on the Tonight Show and at the Polo Grounds, she became (to borrow a phrase from Randall Jarrell) “the only living Marianne Moore in captivity.” Ford hired her as a naming consultant for their new model, the car that would become known as the Edsel. (Moore’s suggestions—“Utopian Turtletop,” “Mongoose Civique,” “Intelligent Whale”—baffled Ford.) In a culture that sentimentalizes genius, Moore was suddenly right at home. The poems from this period were by-products, often not very interesting by-products, of her photogenic eccentricity: she does her baseball poems, her poems for Christmas and Valentine’s Day; she has seen various things on TV, and gives her poetic two cents. She is never, in these poems, grave enough for her subjects; even baseball she underestimates, turning athletes of remarkable prowess and beauty into adorable buffoons. “We need change of objects,” wrote Emerson, but Moore’s objects never changed much. She didn’t develop the way most poets of her caliber do, in the direction of candor, towards a heightening, by simplification, of effect. The late poems are an example of genius in soft-focus.

*

“Omissions are not accidents,” was the adage, self-minted, that served as the epigraph to Moore’s 1967 Complete Poems. That book was anything but “complete,” except in the sense of “finished off.” It seemed more a tally of subtractions than additions; Moore had radically revised some poems, and radically erased others. The resulting dainty book misrepresented her, and Moore has seemed, though never less interesting, somehow less ambitious than her male counterparts, Stevens, Eliot, and Williams.

Grace Schulman’s new collected Moore, The Poems of Marianne Moore (November 2003), prints every significant poem Moore wrote, including many she later suppressed and several she never printed at all. It is not a desecration of Moore to do so; as Schulman points out, “change” was at the heart of her aesthetic, and had she lived another thirty years she most surely would have found her own Complete Poems inadequate. It was stubborn, nearly stingy, of Moore to prune her Complete Poems so ruthlessly, and the restoration of her opus to its real amplitude is a gift given, truly, on her behalf.

The restorations are stunning. “The Old Tiger” is a bestiary of animal gesture and affect, just as Whitman’s poems are censuses of human gesture and affect. In it we see the “magisterial hauteur” of a camel, the “black glass” ears of the tiger, the leopard “spotted underneath” and the Foo Dog, its “tail a complacent half spiral.” You haven’t been to a zoo until you’ve been there with Moore, who of course includes her own rapacious sight among the things she sees: “you [the tiger] / see more than I see but even I / see too much.” “Radical” is a poem about carrots that becomes a poem about slavery, taking the sly way toward moral indignation Moore’s best poems take. Poems that stood alone are restored to their rightful places in sequences; stanzas that had been badly dismantled are here rebuilt according to their original specifications.

There is a mild-mannered, evocative introduction, filled with Flaubertian detail, in which Schulman recalls Moore’s kindness to her all those years ago: Moore’s grandfather clock “bongs away the hours” while the elder and younger poet sit talking, and Schulman does a marvelous job rendering Moore’s failing speaking voice, thinned by stroke: “She spoke in light stresses when she said ‘Do I look well?’ and in heavy stresses for ‘How is your mother?’” Moore’s presence, in these and dozens of other details, is palpable and winning. Memoirs of Moore are a minor genre, and at its best, this one is (along with Elizabeth Bishop’s great “Efforts of Affection”) a classic of the kind.

And yet, and yet. Schulman’s decision to print the poems in chronological order, by first magazine publication where possible, must be regretted. The decision is understandable, or at least logical, but it badly obscures Moore’s accomplishment. To begin with, such a scheme proffers a false chronology: far from showing her essential “development,” as Schulman claims, all it reveals is the accident of her publication time line. Magazines publish their submissions at different rates; just because “The Paper Nautilus” (Kenyon Review, Summer 1940) appeared before “He Digesteth Harde Yron” (Partisan Review, July-August 1941), doesn’t mean it was written earlier. And even if she had finished “Nautilus” earlier than “Yron,” it would not imply that the poem was begun earlier; poets take years “finishing” poems. Elizabeth Bishop is said to have kept “The Moose” for twenty years before she printed it. Worse, though, Schulman’s chronological scheme ignores these poems’ later (often brilliant) organization into books. Moore’s Obvervations (1922) is one of the seminal books in American poetry, but in Schulman’s volume it has been X-acto-knifed and reshuffled among things she suppressed, or withheld until much later in her career, or never published to begin with. As a result, Observations has been practically eliminated, for the time being, from American literature. Can we even imagine Wallace Stevens without thinking of Harmonium? Or Yeats without Responsibilities? Would Schulman, a meticulous poet herself, want her own books cut-and-pasted to reveal her “development”?

When Anthony Thwaite did this to Philip Larkin, the resulting book (Collected Poems: Philip Larkin, 1989) severely diminished a fine poet. Larkin’s unpublished work, often still in disjecta membra, was more Benny Hill than Ben Jonson, but there it was, hedging sublime poems such as “High Windows” and “Aubade.” Moore is more than a fine poet—at her best she is a marvelous, essential poet, one of the half-dozen greatest American poets. But what are we to say of an edition of a poet’s works that opens with the following poem, written to Santa Claus when Moore was six?:

DEAR ST. NICKLUS:
This Christmas morn
You do adorn
Bring Warner a horn
And me a doll
That is all.

Imagine a definitive edition of Stevens that began with a poem he wrote at the age of six, addressed to Santa Claus. It is imponderable. What if the jacket copy of Pound’s Cantos invited us to “cherish” his poems, as this book’s does? Absurd, we would say; great poems are experiences we undergo, not possessions we “cherish.” Perhaps the only way to have Moore whole, have an entire lifetime of her poems rather than a splendid few decades bordered on both sides by frivolity, is to embed her really ingenious work deep within her merely clever, or charming, or delightful work. If what we expect from a poem are the Dürer-like gravities of “The Steeple-Jack,” we get them some of the time; only Moore can deliver those dark, gorgeous effects, but she can only do so in perhaps two-dozen poems. If, on the other hand, we like poems about pet parrots and Yogi Berra, those poems are present here by the bushel-full. Schulman’s edition restores crucial poems lost to Moore’s harsh pruning in her 1967 Collected, yet it badly averages Moore’s genius while increasing her charm. Readers who prefer genius to charm, one hopes, will not quit reading Moore altogether.

*

In any edition, Moore is a poet who enlarges our sense of the world. In “The Jerboa” we learn about jerboas, but we also learn how the Romans picked fruit off the topmost boughs of trees (answer: they put monkeys on the heads of giraffes), along with the Roman uses of “goose-grease,” miniature eagles, human dwarfs, and pomegranates. We learn that the Romans harvested locust oil as a cosmetic and kept it “in stone locusts,” and kept ground rhinoceros horn in “a buck / or rhinoceros horn.” This catalog of worldly luxuries attains a sickening, glutted beauty. The Romans “looked on as theirs / impalas and onigers” along with other, even more beautiful, flora and fauna:

the wild ostrich herd
with hard feet and bird
     necks rearing back in the
     dust like a serpent preparing to strike, cranes,
          mongoose, storks, anoas, Nile geese;
          and there were gardens for these—

combining planes, dates,
limes, and pomegranates,
     in avenues—with square
     pools of pink flowers, tame fish, and small frogs.

All the beasts of the field and air and water, all the flowering plants and trees, all the fruits on the trees enter culture at a tremendous cost. This is a theory of art that verges on taxidermy, as the actual and vital is replaced by an imitation of it sewn from its very flesh and fur. And Moore’s own art doesn’t escape her fierce castigation; as things pile up in Ancient Rome, they pile up, too, in its representation: the poem about Rome. What other poet makes us so aware of the costs of our appetites, the sacrifice that underwrites beauty? These goose-grease vials and rhinoceros horns and tame fish are wondrous, enlarging, enlivening, but also (as proof of our greed) hideous. And terribly sad.

“Capacity for fact” is the mantra from “An Octopus” that characterizes her entire career. In “The Jerboa,” as often in Moore, capacity for fact restores, by nearly imperceptible, quiet steps, our capacity for feeling.

Dan Chiasson is author of the poetry collection The Afterlife of Objects (University of Chicago Press, 2002). He lives in New York City.

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