Here’s my dilemma. The man who wrote the following terrific poem called “Sleeping with Mona Lisa”:
The young woman on the train
uses as a bookmark
a postcard of the Mona Lisa.
She sleeps, while in the distant field
at the edge of the painting
just poking up through her book
I see the light da Vinci loved,
the blue light of ambulances at night
when they pulse out their warnings.
On the last night of winter,
seven old friends
staying late at the party,
unwilling to call it a night
a sentimental, flat, uneventful poem called even more sentimentally, “Not Knowing How to Say Good-Bye” that uses the same stanza design as the first poem but only just barely enters a reader’s consciousness in the same way. It’s a pictagram, really or something somebody writes in a letter or diary. And there’s a folksy quality to the picture and its delivery that makes one have to wonder what this writer’s voice really sounds like.
Jim Moore faces this dilemma of meaning and attempted meaning throughout his newest book of poems, Invisible Strings, and so, as it can be with double-sided dilemmas, some of the poems are terrific, simple, lovely diagrams of human phenomenologies: loneliness, old age and in the more ambitious poems: observations of what the world does to the world. Or they read like postcards of the mundane: flat, abbreviated and cold. When they are good, they are very good. Here’s the end of “Disappearing in America”:
My single star is gone, the one
I like to call mine. Instead, a thick haze
of moonlight. Just as my mother did
when she was growing old, I sit in the darkness,
getting used to how little I can see.
In some ways Invisible Strings is all about that last line: getting used to how little I can see—a phrase of understanding and sense of human logic that gives order to the poems in the book. He’s not going blind to things, necessarily, but living with what isn’t there. The world trails off. And so there is a kind of trailing off not only in the single sentiment a poem might provide here, but in the bigger picture of the world Moore is giving us to inhabit: “how each night/the sun sets and still the world goes on,/even into darkness” he says in “Her Joy” and later, from “Examples”: “Winter light, for sure,/as the sound of your foot on the stair/grows fainter.”
While the natural world comes and goes in shadow and clarity, the social world seems less mysterious to Moore. The aforementioned “Not Knowing How to Say Goodbye,” for instance can’t find anything more than what anybody would say about the poem’s scene and another poem, “Anniversary”, ends with this dull double-meaning:
One bird, then another
begins to sing
outside the store
where you try on dresses.
The black is beautiful,
but so, too, is the blue.
While Invisible Strings seems to contain two sides of consciousness: the casual and the committed—each poem still acts, in a way, as a maker that gets placed on finiteness. The poems come through like statements or aphorisms rather than distillations weaving their way in and out of any narrative or dialectic form. The mind seems to be cleverly already made up here, not re-discovered as the poem reveals a thing and then reveals even more. So, eventually, the poems feel framed in a similar way: something is said, considered, held up against the world, put away. They’re like puzzles on the page: playful, almost, if they weren’t—as many of them are—bending so resolutely in the direction of seriousness and a somewhat clinched wisdom.
And yet, through the repeating cadence of statement set against a deeply controlled lyricism, I liked the unassuming and humbling voice in the book and how each poem (they all follow the pattern of every next line indented), reconsiders what it just said, which makes something slightly new happen with each tab setting.
His best poems are the ones that go off the statement or, as William Maxwell once ended an essay, look hard at everything. Moore can write tantalizingly about the hidden code of the domestic ritual:
I remember my mother toward the end,
folding the tablecloth after dinner
as if it were the flag
of a country that no longer existed,
but had once ruled the world.
So I had mixed feelings by the end of Invisible Strings. While I really admired Moore’s ability to take the same one form of lines falling on a page and discover the statements to put into that form, the poems never set off the kind of required fire that makes poetry the exciting and wondrous way of writing it is and can be. Even in their simplicity, I still wanted these poems to surprise me more than they did—the way these best three lines in the book did:
from now on
even begonias are amazing.
Ah! As I approach that same age, I know this to be true.