PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore
(Omnidawn, Richmond, CA, 2015)
It’s a strange, bittersweet affair to have not only a poet’s prominence but also a poet’s very output of poems blossom smack dab in the final years of a long life. This just is not the expected trajectory. Yet Richard O. Moore lived a life of unconventional dedication. While he was deeply involved in the late 1940s as a Berkeley undergrad in the anarchist writers circle of poetic maestro Kenneth Rexroth, a group which included celebrated poet peers such as William Everson and Robert Duncan, as poet and editor Garrett Caples notes, it wasn’t until “2010, at the age of 90, Moore published his debut volume, a selected poems called Writing the Silences, with the University of California Press.” Between the 1940s and 2010 Moore pivoted his way into Public Television, producing what are now highly cherished, essential film portraits of poets in the mid-1960s for the Poetry:USA series along with acclaimed cinema verité documentaries. He then continued on with a career in Public Television until retirement in 1990. It was then another two decades until Caples along with Paul Ebenkamp and Brenda Hillman became aware of Moore’s poetry that finally under their editorial care Writing the Silences appeared. Five years later in 2015, in the months leading up to Moore’s untimely death just prior to the volume’s appearance, the three editors returned to his primarily new work and with his assistance produced what is but Moore’s second and now final collection Particulars of Place.
Not at all surprisingly this slenderer volume is very much a continuation of Writing the Silences. After a first section composed entirely of the opening title poem, a three part meditative centerpiece of Moore’s oeuvre, “nonsense in any common way of making sense // answer the bell.” There follows a second section of eleven selections taken from the fifty prose poem sequence “d e l e t e” written in the 1980s and early 1990s. The first six poems of the sequence initially appeared in Writing the Silences. Here we’re given a continuation from that group beginning with 7, 8, and 9 which then jumps to 12 and 13, followed by 20 and 30, finally to near the finish with 43, 44, 45, and 47: “look where all your questions have brought you.” From there the final three sections of the book offer newer work, perhaps most significantly thirteen pages from Moore’s blistering series Outcry (Blindness Sonnets) written as his eyesight drastically diminished in his final years: “It is not a fair exchange, light for dark, / So much remains on the other side of sight / A world lost is not a fair exchange.” With poem sequences presented incomplete and the overall selected nature of both Moore’s books the impression is left that there’s definitely yet further unpublished material. The wait for a Collected Poems has thus commenced.
In the meantime, Particulars of Place continues to uphold the confounding predicament in which poetry readers discover an anomaly to the general rule: without early attention, let alone fame or publication, Moore emerges as a powerful, unique poetic voice composing arguably his best work in surprising abundance well into his final, quite venerable decades of life. And with the exception of “Grief Octaves”, a memorial written after the death of Moore’s wife “crowded out of life, a glory never again seen”, or perhaps the Blindness Sonnets which stand quite apart as a remarkably striking expression comingling loss and surprise, little if any of Moore’s poetry is at all noticeably identifiable as written by let us say a senior citizen. There is minimal looking back over the years, passing judgment, lingering over past experience, or other sentimental gazing into the mirror, as it were. The work stands on merits of pure artistic conviction alone. Writing from out personal compulsions and according to a keenly honed sense of balance, never having been rewarded for either, his lines stand full of sonorous meaning with clarity rarely enough found among even the most celebrated of contemporary poets.
“The first step is forward to the blooded earth
and the earth responds, the foot lifts obedient
to the drum (this is a description, not a theory)
in magic there is no time nor is there error
but here are practices and miracles that absorb
all history rising in the wind-twisted dust,
in a social occasion which occupies the whole of time.”
(“Wittgenstein At A Pow Wow”)
While none of Moore’s work will quite knock the socks off many readers and he’s unlikely to achieve any cult following as the work is just not titillating in such manner it does remain entirely deserving of lasting recognition.
Moore’s poetry is demonstrative of the larger force which lies in back of well executed art, namely a lasting perspective of discernment: knowing who you are and what it is you are doing. It’s with good reason poet Cedar Sigo’s introduction to Particulars of Place emphasizes Moore’s film work. The portraits he produced of poets and others offer an inside take on the most pressing concerns at play in the moments captured on film addressing matters both political and artistic. Moore achieves uncanny effects with his film work and does so because, as the poems prove, he himself possessed the stuff it takes to accomplish creating a work of art that’s as alive as anything.
As Sigo states, “Moore’s achievements will always breathe an air of the unreal.” Yeah, he lived his art, incorporating an understanding of what it takes to achieve artistic goals while pursuing an apparently rather mundane life. What’s most remarkable is that he managed to hang on and develop his imagination while playing it straight in the eyes of the rest of the world. In his last years, when Sigo visited Moore with Caples, he was living in a small retirement community north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge, just another old codger among many…but in the magical spaces between the day-to-day came poems of consequence. That’s the unreal which catches you up between thought and action, like glimpsing the fog rolling in around the towers of the Golden Gate.
Patrick James Dunagan books include GUSTONBOOK and Das Gedichtete. Bird and Beckett Books in San Francisco will publish from Book of Kings in 2015. He edited and wrote the introduction for poet Owen Hill's A Walk Among the Bogus (Lavender Ink, 2014). Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco.