Merrill Moore, XxX: 100 Poems : Little Island Press, 2016
Merrill Moore’s (1903-1957) biography is, unfortunately, significantly more interesting than the majority of the poems in XxX: 100 Poems (published by Little Island Press, 2016). A psychiatrist by education, Moore counted among his clients Robert Lowell – with whose mother, Charlotte Lowell, Moore may or may not have had an affair – and Robert Frost’s children – one of whom committed suicide and another who was later committed to a psychiatric hospital. Yet, as a poet, Moore left behind somewhere between 15,000 to 50,000 poems, all written in his own, occasionally loose, interpretation of the sonnet form.
Selecting the one hundred poems that make up the collection must have been an incredible undertaking, but on reading XxX one is left feeling that one hundred may still have been too many. The editor of XxX, David R. Slavitt, writes that while ‘it is easy to find deficiencies in Merrill Moore; what is more important is that there is so much admirable achievement and that the poems, taken together, build to become a persuasive account of a time in the life of America.’ I am much more inclined to agree with Slavitt’s opening claim regarding the deficiencies in Moore’s work than the latter, more grandiose, suggestion. The sonnet form that Moore chose to work in, where a single out of place word or phrase can derail a poem, does not allow the space for the ‘deficiencies’ that Slavitt points towards to be discounted so easily.
‘Dust’, for instance – at points one of the stronger poems in the collection – opens with a display of Moore’s fleeting ability to balance his take on the sonnet form with an ear for rhythm
Dust is always prepared to levitate
When chambers are re-heated by the tall
Columns that surmount the fabulous
Intricate and geometric wall.
but an awkward line half-way through the poem leaves the remaining lines clinging on, unable to rectify Moore’s misstep:
The trustful stone has fallen to distrust
And ships are sunk, and, deep in the Ganges
Dirt settles that was dust.
The holy men
Who prayed for days, return to it again,
Ceaselessly suspended in desire,
Beyond the touch of ice, and out of fire.
While there are issues with the opening lines, the line ‘the trustful stone has fallen to distrust’ is delivered so awkwardly and linguistically naive that the rest of the poem struggles to recover. This is true of much of XxX.
‘Sleeping By My Pad And Waking With A Pen In My Hand’ and ‘In Re Sonnets That Choose To Arrive At Meal Time’ – these are not even close to being the longest poem titles in the collection, one poem’s title runs to roughly eighty words – recounting a poet who finds himself ‘interrupted / By several sonnets trying at the same time / To get release from the net of the unconscious’. Many of the poems of XxX feel like interruptions, leaving behind nothing after their first reading, and would have been served by much stricter editing when Moore were alive. Through reading the collection, Moore comes across as a writer who did not know where his strengths as a poet lay and, more often than not, is unable to carry a poem through to its conclusion effectively.
A number of the poems concern themselves with observational character portraits and this is where Moore may well be at his strongest. In ‘Aunt Dora in the restaurant’ the fragility of the Aunt advancing ‘porously over the floor’, ‘because Aunt Dora was already seventy-two / And she knows that the glistening tiles are hard’ is captured perfectly by Moore reining in his tendency to unsettle a poem with an overwritten line. Having said this, some of the character poems have a misogynistic quality – ‘He said: there is something about a woman’, ‘The Bitch Goddess’ and ‘He was telling me about how he managed to get what he wanted’ being three of the worst – that I’m unsure can be explained away as a simple character portrait or as being wholly satirical.
Obviously Moore passed away almost 60 years ago and this collection, as mentioned in the introduction, is clearly a passion project of Slavitt’s, Moore being someone who sparked the editor’s interest in poetry. Slavitt might be correct, XxX is much more interesting as a collection than the individual poems that comprise it. I am glad the book exists as I’ve now been introduced to the truly eccentric life of Merrill Moore, and all of that credit must go to Slavitt and Little Island Press for bringing Moore back into public consciousness. However, without the biography of Moore that precedes the poems, the poems in XxX simply do not stand up for themselves. Apart from one.
‘Two Things I will Remember As Long As I Live’ starts from a point of confusion and ends with a line so perfectly weighted that it makes the rest of the collection pale further in comparison. Moore could do it, it is just through the poems in XxX he doesn’t do it often enough.
‘Two Things I Will Remember As Long As I Live’
(And both, come to think of it, are similar;
I had not realized that until this moment)
They are: the look on the face of (believe me) a fish
When he is jerked out of water, by the hook
And is trying to disengage it from his mouth
In a dumb brute animal way that is pitiful
Also the effort in the eye itself
To see, to comprehend this awful state
The look of wild defeated frustration there
As the fish is suffocating in thin air
Gasping, gulping, convulsively moving his gills
And body, seeking water to cure his ills.
The other, I nearly forgot it, the other is
The look on the face of a man dying of heart failure.
Click here to buy XxX: 100 Poems from Little Island Press.
About the Publisher:
Little Island Press is an independent publisher of new and classic poetry, fiction and international literature in translation. Based in the UK, it is the work of a few dedicated individuals who believe that great literature survives in great books: each one a little island of its own.
Review by Mike James
Mike is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching trade union representation in contemporary poetry. He is also a poet, teacher and ex-comedian. He has lived and worked in South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Germany. None of these things inform his work.