Poet­ry

Aban­doned Poems

  • Review
By – May 30, 2019

Med­i­ta­tions on mean­ing, sci­ence, lan­guage, his­to­ry, and iden­ti­ty — Amer­i­can, Jew­ish, and per­son­al — dom­i­nate the pages of Stan­ley Moss’s lat­est col­lec­tion, Aban­doned Poems. Rang­ing from the con­tem­pla­tion of chaos to com­men­tary on the Trump pres­i­den­cy, the most pow­er­ful pieces in this vol­ume present them­selves to the read­er as deeply per­son­al and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. In these poems, which build on the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal free verse tra­di­tion with us since William Wordsworth, Moss looks back on a com­plex, sto­ried life, merg­ing his own lived expe­ri­ences with engage­ments — many real and some imag­ined — with oth­er poets, thinkers and artists across time.

In these pieces Moss’s lyri­cal I (lit­er­ary the­o­rist and writer Ihab Hassan’s term) is at once a time-trav­el­er and com­men­ta­tor. In the iron­i­cal­ly titled Get Out,” for exam­ple, Moss imag­ines him­self as a refugee from the 1290 Eng­lish Edict of Expul­sion. Here the poet pic­tures him­self cir­cling through France down to Cór­do­ba, hop­ing to grab a look at the Roman de la Rose along the way before cross­ing the Pyre­nees into Spain. Else­where, he lis­tens to the vio­lent sto­ry of a com­bat­ant in World War II, only to end up along with said vet­er­an at William Car­los Williams’s funer­al. Here Moss has a won­der­ful vision:

I feel I’m dri­ving a dou­ble deck bus

along the Tiber in Rome

I’m dream­ing, void of guile,

we’re near the Iso­la Tiberina

the bus loaded with poets

Some cold sober

some drunk some high.

(“Street Music”)

This par­tic­u­lar­ly beau­ti­ful poem plays with the Anglo-Sax­on split line, mak­ing the pas­sen­ger-read­er swerve along with the dri­ver-poet through this adven­ture in time and space.

In anoth­er direct­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal poem Moss eulo­gizes a sec­ond cousin in emo­tion­al­ly clipped lines. Dis­tance and affec­tion jux­ta­pose each oth­er until the emo­tion­al­ly res­o­nant ending:

We were Great Depres­sion grandchildren

Our kind left behind in Lithua­nia murdered

For the fifty or six­ty pleasures

Mur­der­ing can bring. Fam­i­ly resemblance?

In our chins a cer­tain courage.”

(“After­word for Howard Moss”)

But per­haps the most mov­ing ele­gy in this col­lec­tion is the wry, con­ver­sa­tion­al poem about John Ash­bery. At once a let­ter to the poet and a cel­e­bra­tion of him, Moss’s words join his own sense of mor­tal­i­ty with mem­o­ries of peo­ple, sense impres­sions, and a gen­uine love for the oth­er, very famous poet:

I’ve got nothing

To say today except I wish it was beginning

Sum­mer for you.

(For John Ash­bery, Sep­tem­ber Song)

Appro­pri­ate­ly in this col­lec­tion about let­ting go, Moss aban­dons hope of being the poet Ash­bery was (“these words are proof/​how absolute­ly ordi­nary I am”), and he indulges his eru­di­tion in lan­guages, art, and lit­er­a­ture, all the time care­ful­ly con­trol­ling how the lines work on the page. Lev­i­ty alter­nates with some­thing deep­er and Moss asks us — through his poems of sur­ren­der, depar­ture, and pas­sion — to con­sid­er our own aban­doned projects, not the least of which may be our own democracy:

Life is sud­den­ly a battlefield,

The world needs you more than anyone.

(“Yusef Komun­yakaa”)

Stephanie Bar­bé Ham­mer is a poet, nov­el­ist and pro­fes­sor emeri­ta of Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side. Read more about her inter­ests in mag­i­cal real­ism and the 18th cen­tu­ry at www​.stephaniebar​be​ham​mer​.net.

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