HappenStance, 2013 £4.00
Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Helen Evans and Peter Jarvis
Fiona Moore has a way of focusing on a thing in minute detail, examining it from all sides, and then shifting the poem into another dimension. In 'Sink Drain', for example, she shows us an “iron star / utilitarian / mid-20th-century / war decoration” which becomes “the black hole / where we’ll all end – space/ gut hole, wormhole / place or non-place.” It's a neat poem, which demonstrates Moore’s dry sense of humour and a phlegmatic acceptance of the inevitable. She also does something like this in the first poem of her pamphlet, though to rather more poignant effect. ‘Postcard’ starts,
Three days and already I could write
a dissertation on the fastenings of gates.
Moore goes on to do just that, using gate fastenings – latches, bolts, hooks, loops, twine – as a way to examine how we negotiate passing through. Not just gates, but life, and death.
a puzzle, each to be handled and worked on,
each gate lifted or pulled before I pass
from the last room of sheep or meadow flowers
below hills that move up, and down, and up
as if walking their own walk
to the next. With love.
I’m a fan of half-rhyming couplets, and I found the first three-quarters of this poem strong and moving, but wondered why the half-rhyme, and the couplets, broke down at the end. I felt unsatisfied by it. But perhaps that’s the point. Many of the poems in the pamphlet are about the death of Moore’s partner several years ago. Loss, as the back cover blurb says, is at the heart of existence. Sometimes things don’t go to plan.
I like the honesty in these poems. They are intimate without being sentimental. Moore uses ordinary, commonplace language to try to pin down moments of extreme tension and profound sadness. Sometimes, it seems to me, they are too full of abstract concepts and flowery diction. For example in ‘Overwinter’, midwinter’s longest day “absorbs its own silence of waiting” and dark “overplaits the day’s pale strand”. I'm not sure what this means, and while “day’s pale strand” sounds lovely, I can’t get along with something so self-consciously poetic.
Moore is better when she sticks to the concrete and the observed – the sink drain, the gate fastenings, the shirt cut from her partner’s body by paramedics, the “five nuns // like pints of stout / just poured” in ‘Truly’. And, probably best of all, in ‘What Kind of Sound Crowds Make’, where a boy gets trapped by tube train: “He's about ten, stuck, head inside the train, body / outside”. I read this with mounting horror. “The doors relax – not enough – and thud / closed again with what seems, against his neck, brutal force”.
Spoiler alert: the boy gets out. But that's only half the story. Read the poem.
I can’t remember the last time I read a pamphlet whose poems are so consistently excellent. I want to write a two-word review (“buy it”) and let you discover that yourself. Instead, I’m rereading it again – that isn’t a typo – to try to work out what makes it exceptional.
Loss and love – two of the great themes of poetry, if not the two great themes of poetry – bind this collection together. I feel as though it has been a long time in the writing and was written because it needed to be, not because the poet wanted to rush off a few clever creations. It has that sense of due attention having been paid to external and internal worlds. Evidence of this is Fiona Moore’s sureness of touch, the craft skill of getting the words right.
So often – and this applies to my own work at least as much as to anyone else’s – the attempt to say something that connects makes us reach for metaphors that are either over-inflated or deflated. But here, they float lightly on their surface meaning and the reader intuits the depths beneath, like “the Aran jersey of our first kiss, folded / to two dimensions, collapsing time / from its fourth” (title poem); or the fog in ‘Third day of fog’, which “presses close a smell / of damp grass and manure”; or the stampeding cattle in ‘Bullocks’:
they’re making such time
until they all loosen,
slow, fan out, gentle
themselves into a walk
as if they know exactly
when they’ve passed
their finishing line.
There is hardly a word out of place, let alone a line or stanza.
What is lovely, too, is the way these poems have their clear context and their meaning, but are open enough to let the reader bring her own experience to them. My personal favourites? Difficult. All of the above, plus perhaps ‘The shirt’ and ‘To the reader’:
You are the fire around which your ghosts are talking.
They hand a segmented fruit, one to the next, to share,
and smoke a pipe. They discuss how the colour of ghosts
can only be seen when there is a thickness
of several at once; no transparent material is
transparent. They have passed you in the street, ordinary
These poems bypass the thinking mind and push straight to the heart. More, please.
The apt full moon cover image on this finely produced pamphlet points up the grave, sublunary matter of Moore’s beautiful elegies – distillations of nothingness derived from mutability: death, absence, emptiness, privation, darkness. The impetus for some of the poems was the sudden death of the poet’s partner.
Intentionally or not there are affinities here with Donne in his great ‘A Nocturnall upon St Lucie’s Day’ expressing a “quintessence even from nothingnesse”. In Moore’s poems, some of which are also set in darkest winter, the word “nothing”, or its synonyms, recurs 15 times. And she begins ‘Overwinter’ with “This is midwinter’s longest day”.
Yet there is no religiosity or alchemy in Moore’s world. She draws from modern science – binary oppositions, Einstein and the quantum universe, the physics of longshore drift, with a touch of chaos theory (in ’O That Insistent Thought’ the second stanza seems a fractal of the first; in the charming ‘Postcard’ the five gate-fastenings seem fractals of an ur-gate).
At the collection’s centre are the title poem and three apostrophes to the Moon (each identical in form – unrhymed tercets with short middle lines). The title poem would count as a modern sonnet. It is poignant, the bereft speaker left with a precious relic, “the Aran jersey of our first kiss”, and yearning for a quantum fourth dimension where time is not linear but a circle bending back on itself for the world to repeat itself precisely, endlessly:
You went out
through it like a door and will come back in
before you left, and intact
The three addresses to the Moon in different phases contain mystery and singularly beautiful language as, for example, in the epithets used of the Moon: “casket of wishes, neat-lidded / moon heavenframed” (‘To the Moon 1’) or “white-gowned eroticist” (‘To the Moon 2’) or “pale opposite of a shadow” (‘To the Moon 3’). What gives Moore’s poems generally such richness and depth is the often elevated style, as with “when dark overplaits the day’s pale strand” (‘Overwinter’) and the lovely musicality of ‘The Distal Point’ and ‘Nothing’.
Elsewhere gravity is sometimes leavened with humour. In ‘Truly’, five Irish nuns by a “canary yellow” car stand “like pints of stout / just poured”. In ‘Bullocks’, the young beasts are turned into comical racehorses in a race. In ‘Sink Drain’ an outlandish comparison is made between a kitchen sink’s outlet and the esoteric black holes and wormholes of the quantum universe.
Especially praiseworthy here is the matching of form to content. The couplets in ‘Postcard’ differentiate the five gate-fastenings as well as being appropriate to the postcard’s limited space. The ghoulish ‘Hunger’ is a specular poem mimicking the “confusion of eating and death”. The open form of ‘The Numbers’ reminds one of the wrongness of representing the Holocaust in pretty verses. The poem most expressive of grieving is ‘On Dunwich Beach’, where a haunting refrain builds rhetorically by means of one iterated phrase-type: “undressing for you” segues into “swimming for you”, then “searching for you”, then “dying for you”, then “breathing for you”, before at last “living for you”.