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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 by snow…Waiting for a future that will never be,” where the dim depressing half-light of morning becomes the twilight of the mind, “mirroring the mind, its sad affections,” its search for security—finding it, losing it, moving on….

Among all the hells that go on talking,
Only one is real, though it is silent,
And everything leads up to it—to lose
The land, to lose the very ground you stand on….

Moss also likes maps. (I wonder how many of his readers are aware of that?) The ground of one’s being…OK, so long as it shifts and one can keep traveling. But I think his journeys are faute de mieux. In his sparkling lines there’s always a lot of stillness and silence. He longs for the dead center, the beautiful resolution—love, of course, romantic love, but perhaps something more, something beyond that. Yet he distrusts it, or he disappoints it, or more likely, it disappoints him. Maybe that accounts for his wit. Humor is really the revenge the sensitive man takes on the heart—or rather other people’s hearts which can be fantastically insensitive. It doesn’t appear to hinder his reckonings, though. Probably the frisson of “Arsenic,” an oddly glittering poem built upon a sense of pique, a not uncommon feeling with Moss, a poem about “the importunate, slovenly younger thinkers” who will soon be telling the poet who he is, occurs when he says, quite simply, but with just the right touch of dryness to make it believable:

I have loved three times—
Possibly four—

Readers beware whenever poets tell you how much they have loved: they are usually liars. Yet Moss manages it, at least in “Arsenic,” manages to be so positive about something so ambiguous. But then I really don’t think he cares that much for ambiguities. Up to a point, yes. There’s the Proustian side of him, the interest he has always taken in a certain amount of sardonic, chatty, wryly convoluted uncertainty. (Not for nothing, I think, are this poet’s favorite words “disguised” and “discrepancies” and “temperamental”; “thinly disguised”—a favorite phrase.) Also a Proustian side I can’t say I care much for. Proust the old yenta, Moses among the fleshpots, the Proust of the downfall of Charlus and qui aime bien châtie bien. But I imagine the Proustian stuff is really a sort of taste he acquired in the cultural afterhours; I don’t think it’s innate. Chekhov seems to me to be closer to the plainness of truth, home truths, to the ordinariness of human relations: “Each so different and each the same.” Also Chekhov preoccupied with the sort of humdrum minutiae of guitars and teakettles which his characters hawk about with them on the stage or on the page. All those wistfully uttered, hazily understood visions and frustrations.

In the tales and plays of Chekhov, as in the poems of Howard Moss, we have no second chances. All too human, the typical Chekhovian characters eternally watch the parade passing by, preferring fancy to action: the sisters never do get to Moscow; an old family retainer, forgotten by everyone, barely hears the strokes of the axes melodiously dismembering the cherry orchard; a graybeard roué performs a half-drunken jig—no more dreams of the gay life for him. In the exquisitely null dull melancholy world of Chekhov, as in Moss, fate is time, and missed opportunities bury everyone.

Anyway, out of these special settings and emphases, out of life as folly and heartache, out of the good and the true, the wise and the sad, Moss has created his own world. I’ve often wondered how it was done, how in his works he arrived at his peculiarly elegiac, halting individuality. Certainly he doesn’t broadcast it. One has to listen very attentively. There are the handful of influences to be got through, the slight echoes of other people’s work, other poets’ cunning—Donne and Marvell, Eliot and Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop—but eventually his own sound can be heard.

It has in it, I think, something of the sea’s sad strong relaxed rhythms; a bit of the tart, piercing gossip of good dinner parties, the poet perhaps crestfallen the next morning remembering that he really did enjoy the maliciousness of a Madame Verdurin on his right, the sliminess of a Morel on his left; a lot of the city, the awful good-bye blues of the city as “two people sit / Quite calmly under a blood-red lamp / In a Chinese restaurant” destroying each other; and then, of course, the bitter, yet nostalgic, rather rumpled memories of the family, of bondage to the family, of “the baby he’d been hiding / Wrapped in his skin, maybe his heart” (“Finding Them Lost,” “Long Island Springs”), somehow always connected with that other rueful, withering, yet romantic evocation of past affairs, past loves. (Has Moss ever written a love poem that was a celebration of love itself, its immediacy, rather than l’amour maladie?)

Away from all that, though, the poet himself stands with his own chastening sense of fantasy and foreboding, the puritan ethic and self-mastery, experience and acceptance (almost resignation), which seems to me to be his typical stance in the world. Of course it has grown more assured and pronounced in the later poems, but by then he’s earned his right to be who he is, been able to do battle with the world, the depressing literary world, generally; got to know its rules and its loopholes, its sadomasochistic pinnings and underpinnings; been able to bend a little and compromise, but also fight and win a few rounds. He’s clearly very aware of these rights, proud to have reaped them. It’s really what makes him keep writing poems. But it doesn’t make the self, when sad (which is often), any the less desolate; it merely heightens everything, adds significance to what would otherwise be ephemeral or blank.

Think how many sad people or sadnesses there are in the world, and how few times these people and these sadnesses are allowed to express themselves. Those are the other “strangulations.” All artists, of course, have to be grateful that if, like the rest of us, they are unable to get out of things, they are able to get “things out,” even though the act, which may be liberating, is really of no comfort. Nor does it much ease the bane, alter the pattern—what Leopardi calls l’inganno estremo, the last deceit, occurs heedlessly again and again.

Which brings me, finally, to Moss’s most familiar strain. For though he can cherish the eccentricity of a Mr. Calava breezily puttering about at dawn along the shores of the Hamptons, “a connoisseur of broken glass,” or celebrate an “imaginary Brazil” or the gentle “giant wit” of Einstein “among the homilies,” there is one feeling, surely, that imperils all the others, the feeling of entrapment, the unredemptive sense that after a certain number of agitations and relationships—after “daylight draws / Two spindles in the distance,” placing “a house here, there a dune,” after “the persistence of song” which always leads to “that wanting which ends in hurting,” after “the changing of the gods”—one keeps meeting the same face over and over, one’s own face, really, “far body and near spirit,” with wonder and surprise and a little horror, whenever the illusions or actualities (of empathy, of love, of work accomplished and fear of failure laid to rest) dissolve. Then one is left either with the images and markers of the weather outside us or within us—“The Stairs,” for instance:

Starting out as love, it climbed the stairs,
And then came down as something else again;
I did not recognize its killing features
Until I saw they were my very own…

Or, more drastically, a sense of the botched adventure, the payment of the last farthing. From “Sawdust”:

So get the matches and the needles ready,
The chains, the belts, the para- phernalia—
The bulging, red-eyed children plunge again
Into the powerless mirrors of power,
Still wondering, as the gearshifts move,
If pain is a substitute for love, or love.

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