Foolish Questions – The Poetry of Stanley Moss

Review: Stanley Moss, It’s About Time (Hopewell, 2015 and Carcanet, 2016), 176 pages.










The opening poem of this new collection by Stanley Moss is a searing, and unapologetically American, take on day-to-day transcendence. “I often write in my diary the obsolete poem of self,” Moss declares, before describing how he tosses it, like his hat, off the Brooklyn Bridge. It is only by stripping the shell of selfhood away, Moss suggests, that he can confront language in its full divinity: “Are the playhouses of God metaphors? / Is God rhyme? The God of everyone obsolete?” Pursuing these questions, however, leads him back to earthly things, the “wool and flax in the fields” where Emerson sought his “original relation to the universe.” As Moss writes, “Birdsong, neigh, hee-haw, / bark, bray, buzz” are “all God’s speech,” and God himself is merely an impersonal verb, just as “Johann Sebastian Bach / is a verb.” But, without the self, all that Moss holds precious seems to lose its value—“the poem of you is obsolete / and the poem of he, she, we obsolete”—and Moss is forced to return to, and acknowledge, his own perspective. He breaks out in frustration (‘Bach you! Bach you!’) before ending in a broken, personal plea: “So help us / or don’t help us, God, / breaking my vow, so help me God.”

Published by Hopewell Press in North America last year, and released by Carcanet Press this year for a British and world audience, It’s About Time provides a detailed portrait of the man who—through his own work and the Sheep Meadow Press—has been an integral part of New York’s writing milieu for decades. The reader encounters Moss in his many selves: as Yale alumnus, World War II veteran, New York art-dealer, independent publisher, and inveterate truth-seeker.

Moss sketches a similar path from the transcendent to the temporal in “Fantasy on a Goya Drawing” (p 22). Here, the poet imagines a conversation with the protagonist of a Goya drawing who has been stitched inside a dead horse: the dying man, with his head “protruding from dead Rocinante’s asshole,” is finally allowed a few words of revelation through his “stained-ass window.” In this poem, rather than seeking to escape the self, Moss points us purposefully towards moments of illumination that come precisely from what we experience of pain and absurdity. There is no tasteful or easy escape from the horse’s belly, it seems, if one seeks truth from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Later in the same section, another poem, “Why” (p 39), reinforces the idea that there are no answers to Moss’ questions that can be found without gnawing on the bone of existence: “I swallow my foolish questions—many ‘why?’s / ‘I pick from between my teeth the letter ‘y’.” Though this affords him no redemption (“there is no place in heaven for curiosity”), Moss is content to “sleep with Mother Nature … dreaming of questions,” preferring this existence to the afterlife because it is the realm of “Why? Why? Why?”

One senses that Moss’ ninety years have given him the wherewithal for such unremitting inquiry. Having weathered the vicissitudes of the past century, Moss emerges as a pugilist of meaning, and even his least perplexed pieces are savage in their simplicity. In “Rope” (p 71), for example—which at all of ten lines is one of the shortest poems in the book—a whimsical tug-of-war with the poet’s dog turns by sleight of hand into a “tug of peace”: “a long kiss when we pull together against death / that is the opposite of everything.” Moss’ penchant for seeking existential truths in the facts of existence is especially evident in his poems about childhood. “Granite” (p 75) describes a boulder that seemed, to five-year-old Moss, “almost a mountain.” He remembers, first, the “immortal” feeling of being able to “see to the other side of the lake” from the boulder’s top, and then the lasting pain of falling from the boulder in a storm—he still has “the granite dust / in the scars under [his] shirt.” In the space of a few lines the boulder morphs, in Moss’ expert hands, into an investigation of past loves, forgotten friends:

Who else can I kiss that I kissed when I was five?
I kissed the flowers in her mortal crevices.
Does she dream she is a dancer, alabaster?
I held my boulder close as I could.

Moss finds in the child the image of the man, and expands a single feature of the remembered landscape into a touchstone for the present. Nothing is impervious to Moss’ questing eye: schools of rainbow trout, the whole Bronx zoo, a cast of mythological characters, and even at one point Moss’ own pacemaker.

The book itself is structured along the trajectory of Moss’ experiences. Its first four sections follow the progress of a day: from “Sunrise – Morning” to “12 Noon,”“Sunset—Night,” and “Eclipse.” While the first captures the bright strokes of Moss’ farthest-reaching questions, the second (which features several epistolary poems) explores the relationships, real and imagined, which have coloured Moss’ life, and the third picks up speed with urgent questions about meaning and mortality. If Moss calls out, in the first section—“Hello, hello. / I proclaim the bright day of the soul.” (“Bright Day,” p 18)—he is, by the third section, wrestling in “bedroom slippers” with his own pulse. (“The Perfect Democracy,” p 105-107). At the day’s close, Moss seems to suggest, his questions have not disappeared, but return even more clearly in the dark just as “the cock calls the roll.”

This progression leads perfectly into “Eclipse”—which, true to its title, is both the collection’s darkest, and most magical, section. If the first three sections question the universe’s known workings, the pieces in “Eclipse” confront something more transcendent and elemental, filled as if with a child’s wonder at how a higher power has, it seems, turned out the lights. We find, for example, one of Moss’ rare prose poems, “Tears” (p 135), which moves with an almost manic rhythm across a slew of images: “My tears are barley water. I give you my tears to wash your feet. My tears are lace on my father’s face. My tears are old rags that do not fit me.” These culminate in “the weight of thorns and flesh, Christ’s crown,” as the world itself becomes Moss’ confessional—“I went into the woods that know me…The wind taught me chants and common prayer…Oh my teachers, where did I ever learn my vices?” Here is the old poet at his most vulnerable, at the end of a life’s searching and soul-searching. Another poem, “The Walk” (p 138), alloys Moss’ memory of his father with the familiar narrative of the Fall. In his words, Moss first “saw the serpent in the garden” at “two or three,” when “crossing Liberty Avenue” with his father, and describes a second encounter with his father forty years later in the poem’s wistful conclusion: “I said no, it was I who owed the debt / kissed him without regret.” Such moments—tender in every sense—combine to make “Eclipse,” both emotionally and technically, the strongest of the four sections.

With the fifth and final section, “Merry Go Round,” Moss returns to sixteen previously-published poems, as if to trace out early threads woven into more recent pieces. Some of them include revisions—usually additions or subtractions of punctuation and line-breaks—that reveal a poet still sensitive to the possibilities latent in his polished work. At least one poem, however, has been reworked more extensively to transplant it onto British soil. In “Ubuntu” (p 169), previously published as “Creed,” Moss has chosen to preface his original closing couplet with what seems a hasty disclaimer:

… I take to my heart
The Christ-like word ubuntu
That teaches reconciliation
Of murderers, torturers, accomplices,
With victims still living.
Jefferson was wrong:
It is not blood but ubuntu
That is the manure of freedom.

This particular addition risks stealing from Moss’ strongest suit: his ability to reach into history with a wry nod-and-wink to those familiar with the same maps and myths. The layered subtlety of his poems is a useful counterweight to their more direct (and occasionally disarming) moments. Nevertheless, there is enough nuance in his early and recent pieces alike to withstand some clarification.

In particular, the long poem “A History of Colour” (p 161-166) employs Moss’ wide-ranging erudition to flesh out the religious and mythological motifs, which form the backbone of his poetry. In the opening line, Moss asks “What is heaven but the history of colour…?,” and goes on to interrogate “why Christian gold and blue tempt the kneeling,” “why Muslim green is miraculous in the desert,” and “why the personification of the rainbow is Isis,” among other mysteries. Though the poem is ostensibly about color, Moss dwells on what is between the visible and invisible, the “sacred conversation” of the ordinary—the “silver and purple pollen that has blown on the roof / of my car”—that gives rise to man’s ideas about the supernatural. Later in the poem, Moss uses color to chronicle the history of religion: Phoenician purples, yellow Greek stones, St Jerome’s red robes, the green banners of Muslim armies, and Turner’s stormy hues all form part of an acutely self-aware narrative in which Moss (himself a poet of doubt and belief) features as subject and storyteller. If color stands for man’s engagement with the divine, Moss places it squarely at the heart of his own writing, comparing “the absence of colour” to “a life without love.” Especially against the backdrop of Death, a close cousin of religion, Moss insists on the child’s yearning to “[choose] an object first for colour,” or what he sees as the natural impulse to break the white and black of dogma into the constituent hues of human experience.

The critic Christopher Buckley once described Moss as a poet familiar with “God, myth, scepticism, and the unreviseable facts of death on an individual and large scale.” The poems in this volume suggest that Moss has earned this familiarity through a lifetime of questioning, and a fierce insistence on experience. By finding truth in difficult places, Moss has honed a poetic voice that is conversational without being trite, confessional without being selfish, and deeply convincing. Though he demands the reader’s diligence, we are repaid many, many times over with the sleepless satisfaction of having found words to hold our own questions.


Theophilus Kwek

Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Martin Starkie Prize in 2014 and the Jane Martin Prize in 2015, and his poems have been featured in The London Magazine, The Interpreter’s House, and the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, among other publications. He is the current President of the Oxford University Poetry Society.


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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