A Pisgah view of Marianne Moore

Elizabeth Bishop summed up a deal of poetry when she wrote this sentence in an essay about Marianne Moore: “It is annoying to have to keep saying that things are like other things, even though there seems to be no help for it.”
Tapping into that annoyance – playing with it, exasperating it, flaunting it, exhausting it – seems like the modernist project. Or maybe it seems like the project of Marianne Moore, who was a modernist as well as an eccentric. Or perhaps she would claim she was centric, had a sense of centers in a world that was full of the cockeyed and the unbalanced, a world of people who would neither properly see what they made nor what they destroyed, but was given to interminable futzing around.
I’ve been going through Marianne Moore’s Collected Poems, and, shamefully perhaps, I’m finding I like her first versions of her poems better than her second versions. She was a notorious suppressor and changer.
It pleases me that Marianne Moore, in contrast with the bigots who are the big names of American 20th century poetry – Eliot, Pound, Stevens – did not throw in her lot with bigotry. At least as much as one could refrain from throwing in one’s lot with bigotry when bigotry has built so much that we live and move among, when it butters the pathway of every white American middle class life still. So in her Virginia Brittanica poem, I was pleased to meet these lines:
The slowmoving glossy, tall
quick cavalcade
of buckeye-brown surprising
jumpers, the contrasting work-mule and
show-mule & witch-cross door & “strong sweet prison”
are part of what
has come about, in the Black
idiom, from advancing backward
in a circle; from taking The Potomac
cowbirdlike; and on
The Chickahominy
establishing the Negro, opportunely brought, to strength-
en protest against
Of course, Moore’s preserved faith in Lincoln’s Republican Party ethos has its twists. The phrase “opportunely brought” for instance, which surely refers to the recruitment of black soldiers in the Civil War, has a backreference to the original bringing that leaves an ambiguity in the mouth. Opportunely for whom? To be fair, this is the central moral problem around which the poem, with all its beauty, stalks. And what is this “cowbirdlike”? Yet I like best the reference to advancing backwards in a circle. Because the poem itself is about that advance that is also retreat, that invasion that is also native. There’s a delicate footing between plants – Moore’s sort of inhabited observation, as Elizabeth Bishop noticed, makes description a sort of narration, a sort of biography in miniature – and peoples, between natives and invaders, between those who colonized and those brought over to make the colony, as the naturals are driven back, taken from. Moore is very good at this kind of thing, but I find I really have to read her poems twice just to know where I was going – and that of course is what writing is, for a poet, it is going somewhere, even if that means advancing backwards in a circle.
I love this sly stanza – or not exactly a stanza, borrowing out of poetics the words for Moore’s units is a way of wrong-footing yourself – that tells so much about the South I know.
meat and crested spoon
feed the mistress of French
plum-and-turquoise-piped chaise-longue;
of brass-knobbed slat front-door and
everywhere open
shaded house on Indian-
named Virginian
streams, in counties named for English lords.
“Indian named Virginian steams, in counties named for English lords” – such is the balance, or lack of balance, in this hard country with the soft accent, the meanness and the courtesy.