Tuesday, November 12, 2013
November 11, 2013 Issue
A great critical piece stimulates thought in many directions. Case in point is Dan Chiasson’s absorbing “All About My Mother” in this week’s issue. It’s a review of Linda Leavell’s biography of Marianne Moore, Holding On Upside Down. Reading it, I recalled Helen Vendler’s “On Marianne Moore” (The New Yorker, October 16, 1978; included in her wonderful 1980 collection Part of Nature, Part of Us), which concludes with a memorable story about how Moore’s poem “Nevertheless” arose:
Moore, seeing a box of strawberries a misshapen green one, almost all seeds, said, “Here’s a strawberry that’s had quite a struggle,” and found thereby a first line.
Moore’s compassion for the misshapen green strawberry is another marvelous instance of what Chiasson calls, in his piece, her “unlikely applications of empathy.” He quotes the opening of her brilliant “The Fish” (the title of which runs into the first line) – “wade / through black jade. / Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one / keeps / adjusting the ash-heaps; / Opening and shutting itself like / an / injured fan” - and says:
These unlikely applications of empathy – to a mussel shell, a fan, a fish condemned to wading through stone – all enter through the unmarked portal of “description”; only later do we realize that what has been described is not what Moore saw but what Moore felt on seeing what she saw.
This – along with Vendler’s observation that Moore is a naturalist - strikes me as an excellent way of approaching and enjoying Moore’s work. And you can also add the intriguing possibility that when Moore describes something - strawberry, elephant, fish, ostrich - she’s providing a self-portrait. Chiasson touches on this point when he says,
Like the elephant, she could say, “I do these / things which I do, which please / no one but myself,” and boast the poet’s boast: “My ears are sensitized to more than the sound of / the wind.” What she said of the “rust-backed mongoose,” she could have said of herself: “Its restlessness was / its excellence”: “it was praised for its wit; / and the jerboa, like it, / a small desert rat, / and not famous, that / lives without water, has / happiness.”
There’s a delightful reference in Chiasson’s piece to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Efforts of Affection.” He rightly calls it a “great memoir.” It brings Moore to breathing life. Here’s Bishop’s description of Moore’s eyes:
Her eyes were bright, not “bright” as we often say about eyes when we really mean alert; they were that too, but also shiny bright and, like those of a small animal, often looked at one sidewise – quickly, at the conclusion of a sentence that had turned out unusually well.
Here is her laugh:
She had a way of laughing at what she or someone else had just said if she meant to show outrage or mock disapproval – an oh-ho kind of sound, rough, that went with a backwards and sidewise toss of the head toward the left shoulder.
And here, unforgettably, is Bishop’s exquisite definition of Moore’s governing aesthetic:
Marianne was intensely interested in the techniques of things – how camellias are grown; how the quartz prisms work in crystal clocks; how the pangolin can close up his ear, nose, and eye apertures and walk on the outside edges of his hands “and save the claws / for digging”; how to drive a car; how the best pitchers throw a baseball; how to make a figurehead for her nephew’s sailboat. The exact way in which anything was done, or made, or functioned, was poetry to her.