Arcadia Road by Thorpe Moeckel

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Thorpe Moeckel’s Arcadia Road is a celebration of DIY homesteading. The poem’s sections are aptly titled: “Venison” “Milk in a Pail” and “Dirt.” This triadic long poem unfurls in nearly 200 pages of open-ended couplets of tangentially propelled rhythm expressing the joy Moeckel finds in maintenance of a household based upon principles not generally widespread throughout contemporary consumer culture. All of the action centers upon day-to-day happenings within and around the home he’s created with his young family. Much of the poem is taken up with describing the physical yet obviously enriching labor the family expends to provide for their own sustenance.

The poet’s enthusiasm for his family’s chosen lifestyle is evident in the delight he takes in richly detailing such business as: butchering one’s own meat, “I grip, yank, exposing / this astonishment of burgundy, all sinew & gleam”; farming and gardening, “to till is to take a walk, a recirculating, hey, / semi-rectangular & shifty sort of walk”; and the pleasures of living so closely knit amongst natural environs, “rocks in creekbed we explore / evenings in summer in swims & canoes / and just hanging around browsing on / sounds & smells.” He lives a life many others only ever dream of.

Page after page of the poem rushes by as Moeckel delves ever further into various nooks and crannies of thought brought up as he begins depicting this or that occasion. One event leads him to another. A flash of color or stray remark brings up a different recent memory or the last instance filled with a similar feeling, expanding and contracting the lines of his poem according to the irregular patterns of his wandering attention. He’s continually describing immediate scenes of action while also allowing for interjections as he tracks his roaming concerns and follows through with each thought arising in the instant, leading the writing on.

The poem is thus as much a celebratory display of language’s varied richness—Moeckel shows no fear of unusual and inventive wordplay—as it is his family’s lifestyle. For instance, when his focus upon tending potatoes in his garden only becomes distracted over worry that his son and daughter may be treading close to a dangerous patch of barbed wire fence:

“here’s the potato bed, dark dirt in mounds,
green & flaccid sprawl in eruption patient. Now

William, you’re getting too close to barbed wire,
and your sister’s going to follow you, O, what

can I distract, redirect you with? What combo,
fertile or not, what ionic swungdash of staring

at you & now having to turn off this machine,
break up the flow of turning dirt, carving

and grinding, sloughing & fluffing, sweet boy,
could work? A storm’s brewing, kid! There goes

your sister now to join you, & why not? –
it’s a fence, a border, and there’s the promise

of goats, ewes, Pyrenees pups with Mama Stella. Food,
continuous food – what comes through eyes

comes through hands. I’m prepping a bed, slowly,
prepping a meal, not the next or even

close, & only part. Salad greens for this ground,
some kale, collards, Bok Choy as well.”

There is always a return to the sanctity of the daily routine, expression of the satisfaction continually discovered in household chores: “Real pleasure & gratitude / in making, in process, in materials.”

While never outright rejecting city life or the modern world, Moeckel stirringly questions the efficacy of allurements found within daily mainstream reality, the “crapstorm // of media, opinions, banter, ballyhoo, art, / money, politics, fast cars, the old in/out // yearning & naught – so much barking, / humdingering” yet he acknowledges them “so tasty, these bedevilments.” It’s refreshing to read new poetry which manages remain contemporary and forward-looking in terms of its spry playfulness with language while yet bucking current hipster trends found in urbane poet-villas from Oakland to Brooklyn. This is a path few others are treading. Where precursor-poets do pop to mind, say Gary Snyder or Wendell Berry, perhaps A.R. Ammons or Ted Hughes, Moeckel’s frolicsome whimsy and near lackadaisical concern for imparting any sort of “heavy message” separates his work out from theirs in unexpected ways.

Moeckel doesn’t balk at acknowledging how hokey some of his reflections may be judged in today’s heavily ironic, self-consciously aware climate: “I know it’s quaint / to say that cutting fresh meat is a journey that takes me / as far into the woods in the life of the deer as any walk”. He readily expresses his own discomfort with the overly sentimental or personal anecdote, welcoming the opportunity to address the reader’s reaction as well as his own: “I hope you’re wriggling, I’m wriggling”. This is poetry steeped in grass roots Americana writ large sans any pseudo-nostalgic looking back though rose-tinted glasses towards some idea of the good old days or embracing a mythic lens through which to communicate heady news. Instead Moeckel offers a vision of living life both in the world and in language that is freshly inspired and ever animatedly welcoming of the next day ahead. An astute reckoning with the cultural and literary climate of our era that puts aside belittling or chastising in favor of challenging and inspiring others to find their own new paths. Reminding us all that our lives are what we make of them.

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →