Very Different Cats

Selected Poems

by Howard Moss
Atheneum, 171 pp., $6.95

Three Poems

by John Ashbery
Viking, 118 pp., $3.95 (paper)

About a year and a half ago in The New Yorker, Howard Moss published what is, I think, probably the best poem he has ever written. The poem is called “Chekhov.” It has all the characteristic virtues of Moss’s other poems—and then surpasses those, transmutes them. It has the poet’s typical tone of “tireless, cool, / Calm, and precise lament”; his laconic sense of exhilaration and depletion, coming in cycles, “a little bit of both: frenzy and resting”; his subtle, rather resentful realization of the “Oedipal strangulations” buried at the heart of everything, the heart of memory (a number of Moss’s poems could really be christened with a simple precept: there’s an awful lot of tomorrow in the past, or vice versa); his forlorn appreciation of the aspects of love, if not the aspects of passion, of the limits of life, if not the untowardness of life, of, at times, the sheer indifference of life to life (Moss’s weather, usually, is the calm before the storm—the storm that never happens)—above all, and beautifully, “Chekhov” demonstrates his ability to encapsulate an emotion in an epigram.

The poem also has, I think, none of Moss’s characteristic faults. For it has always been difficult for me to imagine what the author of “Particular Beauties” or “The Baystone” or “Chekhov” would really have to say to the author of “History” or “Explorers” or any of the other merely decorous, merely prudential pieces scattered throughout the Selected Poems. At times, surely, Moss loves not wisely but too well the elegantly naturalistic, didactic, descriptive portraits of phenomena, snapshots of the poet or one of his personae watering the geraniums on the roof garden or counting the fringy needles of the pine, a cautionary word or two scribbled at the bottom: “The great in the small design.” Often he thinks that’s reality. But that’s neither reality nor really poetry. Poetry is always going beyond phenomena into noumena. The other is simply a sort of gentlemanly malaise, poems to be read to a Poetry Society, one simile almost geometrically connected to another simile, a certain evasive timidity masquerading as taste, good taste—and how boring that is.

In “Chekhov,” though, nothing is boring. It is the most delicate, most forthright statement of Moss’s particular situation, the situation of Chekhov’s plays as well, a poem where what one knows and what one feels come together suddenly and miraculously, like receiving a letter in the mail you’ve written to yourself—explaining everything. A poem about creation, about the sad subtleties of the imagination, about what it means to be a poet, an artist; about life as a series of “still-lifes,” always “subject to the risk of animation”; about the frail drama of towns and orchards and lakes where “the puzzled players change their places,” where “property and battle-fields turn out to share / A fate in common—they exchange hands”; about adventure or the absence of adventure, where we can be “racing the wolves at thirty below / In a ravine whiplashed…

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