“A Dancer Preparing to Move”
A Review of
Writing the Silences: Poems
by Richard Moore
Reviewed by Thomas T. Turner II
Writing the Silences: Poems
Hardback: U of California Press, 2010.
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In her foreword to Richard O. Moore’s new book of poetry Writing the Silences, Brenda Hillman describes Moore’s poetry as evidence of a struggle “in relation to meaning itself, the idea of meaning in a world that has no easy gods or moral codes, a world in which institutions refuse to cooperate.” Hillman is apt to point this out, as the sheer brilliance of Moore’s poetry is found in the constant metaphysical probing for meaning in a post-Enlightenment world when such probing for meaning only leads to an endless chain of meaning upon meaning without any resolution. In effect, Moore writes his silences in Plato’s cave, the dim light of a fire giving up bits and pieces of poetic meaning before falling quickly back into the shadows of the cave.
Moore’s work is not a critique of modernism as much as it is a poetic realization of the world he was born into and writes about. Moore’s poem “Dog in the Forest” digs deep into the capriciousness of life and connects our metaphysical restlessness to acedia:
Can it be told when an ancient trace of faith
gave way under stress in every modern world?
. . .
There are paths which have left behind no odor of life.
. . .
Read the wind dream a sleep of unknowing lie down
with the Noonday Demon.
The malady of acedia is pronounced throughout Moore’s work as an interplay of light and shadow, doubt and faith, words and silence. The sparseness and “holes” in Moore’s poetry are a concrete image of the inability of poetry to have full meaning. Poetry for Moore becomes a place that is no longer reserved as the art of finding meaning, as some poetic critics have argued, but is instead under the same constraints as any other art through a postmodern lens: it is flawed in some way, and becomes an art form where “the proposition itself/is questioned.”
It can be argued that Moore’s approach to poetry is one of humility and raw honesty. His ambiguity is forthright and unabashed. He is a poet who lays his cards flat out on the table and writes with words that are bare before all. He moves through his Platonic cave from feelings of despair (“we are alone again doubt/and silence hold the ground” to glimmers of hope (“light dawns gradually over the whole”) in the same poem. In writing the silences, Moore is giving a bit of sound to what he perceives as the overwhelming silence of the cosmos and sheer unknown. The world is dark in Moore’s poetry in the sense that it is a frontier: unexplored, untraceable, unknowable. It is not a hell as much as it is an ocean: a world where the light barely penetrates before slipping into the depths of darkness in the abyss. In this world Moore finds “a landscape with clear/features except nothing/to know valley and plain/silence against silence.” The silence, so apparent in both the work’s title and the poetry itself, is Moore’s constant insistence that language is incapable of articulating full meaning. Instead, “bent beneath the full burden/of a life our language/carries us.” This argument is captured in Moore’s prose poem “Birthright” through his prophetic stance against our common history of war and politics: the violence of the sword and the violence of the word. In this world where stories are “sawed and hammered to fit” and “brittle words out of the family plot” are used “to build empires, ideologies of race, and desperate traveling salesman” we can find little solace, even from love, Moore would argue. Yet even in a world where love can sometimes bear a “lifelong tenebrous scald” we can only yearn to find hope in the uncertainty as well, joining with Moore in praying:
…the wind shall not
rise up and wrap about me
I hold out my hands in balance
a dancer preparing to move.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com