I’m on the train to my home city, traveling east rather unsteadily through the flooded marshlands. I’m reading a strange little book I found on my daughter’s shelf a few hours ago—Soulstorm, a collection of short stories by Clarice Lispector (1925-1977), translated from the Portuguese by Alexis Levitin, and first published in 1974. I’ve never read her work before, and this collection of shorts (most only a few pages long) is surprising and energizing.
For one thing, her stories don’t feel the need to explain, justify or probe. They are what they are, and so are their characters. In “The Body” for instance, Beatrice and Carmen (“the hotheaded one”)—part of a ménage a trois—stab to death their lover and partner, Xavier, and bury him in the garden with a rose cutting that magically roots and blooms there. The police find them out, but allow them to go free; “…otherwise there will be lots of noise, lots of paperwork, lots of gossip.” One by one each character, each story announces: What is is. It’s all mystery.
Earlier this morning, on this same train but headed west, I also read a new book of poems called Writing the Silences by the ninety-year old poet Richard O. Moore. It is (despite his long life in poetry initiated by a class with Josephine Miles at Berkeley and, soon after, by his hanging out with Kenneth Rexroth’s gang in San Francisco in the late thirties and forties) only Moore’s second full-length collection.
The book includes a wonderful foreword by Brenda Hillman (Moore took a workshop from her some years ago and eventually they became friends), as well as several pages of photographs at the end: Moore with Jarrell, with Zukovsky, with Ginsberg and Orlovsky, along with photos taken by Moore—of Creeley, Levertov, and Sexton, among others.
Already a pacifist, he was classified as “4F” in WW II, with a diagnosis of “psychotic neurotic” (because he answered several questions honestly, among them: “What do you do for a living?” Answer: “I’m a poet.”) Moore subsequently became an adviser to war resisters and one of the founders of the first non-profit public radio stations in the U.S.
After the war, Hillman says, ”Moore’s poetry came to be dominated by images of barren landscapes and resistance to violence.” She describes how he began as something of an imagist (though always an eclectic), and how philosophical enquiry, his concern from early on, became more and more of a focus in his work: “His poetry has continued to reflect the values and eclectic free-verse styles of the San Francisco Renaissance writers: a growing interest in experimental lyric; a blend of traditional rhymes with very relaxed, unfettered prose poetry…fresh forms of personal address; and a growing interest in the philosophy of language as subject matter and in method.”
As I rocked side to side in my seat, as the marshlands flashed past with their mirror-shards, and we rattled and swayed westward toward the bay, I felt “the hot and onrushing blood” [“The Winter Garden”] of Moore’s words rushing along inside me.
You could say that Lispector was (that we all are), in a different way, also “writing the silences” and, that just as the characters in Lispector’s collection feel no need to explain, Moore’s poems also seem to insist: What is is—and yes, my friends, it’s all mystery. (Even at ninety. No doubt, especially at ninety.)
I’ll close with brief excerpts from two of Moore’s poems. I want him to have the last word:
dismantle history’s theoretic spine
with life the issue guess what hinders and what serves
turn inside out and outside in
abandon the cellular palace of the skin
blown to bits or spotted with old age
force together peace and humankind
in an exploded classroom of the mind
speak of resurrection and of ruin
in a battlefield with shot down angels strewn
and wild flattened scarecrows words on a page
of desolations patronage
madness crept into my pocket
like a hairy bug
I cannot say I saw it
but I believe it
to be there waiting