blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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Review | Making a Map of the River, by Thorpe Moeckel, and In the Truth Room, by Dana Roeser

spacer Making a Map of the River, by Thorpe Moeckel
   Iris Press, 2008

With real excitement, I opened the second books of two gifted poets, Thorpe Moeckel and Dana Roeser. These two are unalike in interesting ways, and between them there are more memorable poems than I can mention in this review. Both write verse that is precise and intimate, illuminating the territories they have staked out as their own. Moeckel’s poems are dense with the vocabulary and sensibility of a naturalist, intent on writing the physicality of a wild landscape and the experience of moving through it and being shaped by it. Roeser’s extravagant and surprising poems are grounded in anecdote and domestic detail—raising children, the long marriage, and aging—but culminate in dazzling displays of ideas.

Printed on animal hides with vegetable dyes or carved into clay, the earliest maps are among humanity’s first texts, and certainly predate poetry. Maps render human experience in relation to physical space and place; they show us where we’ve been and suggest where we might yet go. Making a Map of the River, Thorpe Moeckel’s second collection, investigates the complex geographies of a wild river—the Chattooga—its riders and hangers-on, its assailants and advocates. Through the metaphor of the river and its several maps, Moeckel offers divergent angles of approach—each rich and messy with possibilities.

As a point of beginning, Moeckel surveys the terrain and waves us in with a warning. In “Night Walk,” the “dark’s weird” and memory is our fickle escort:

Maybe the eyes are only just at night, if they can be just at all

when open. Maybe everything seen is seen again, but not now.
            Now, what’s fixed moves, and what moves
isn’t there. Now, as trees sliver in their roots, the limbs

dispense another remedy for shallow breathing. Far off
            there’s barking, and then it’s gone but there

as when a sharp pain in the chest subsides, or the land & the sky
trade places.

In darkness, the familiar shape-shifts before our eyes even as we move over well-known ground. The poem then takes a surprising turn, as “the elm becomes a segment of Solid Gold, / each limb a toll way of throb & sway // where memory is the DJ, spinning the vinyl of what comes next.” Moeckel knows that our senses are not always reliable and that the darkness is only part of what challenges us.

How can words convey the intense bodily experience of the athlete or of a trek in the wilderness? The “disarrangement of the senses” (as per Rimbaud) is one way to convey the tangible and intangible, the sure beauties and shadows of the woods and water. Many poems in this collection—“Risking Bread,” “October Slow Drift,” and “Dead Man’s Pool”—work this ground with great energy and success, permitting us to see what is heard in the deep woods or on a rain-swollen river, to hear the fetid heat of a South Carolina summer. Moeckel writes of “aromas the color of water” and suggests that we “listen to the jewelweed / as it hums an orange grace.” These gestures entangle the human and non-human in the landscape as the speaker describes the river’s rapids or the foliage along its banks.

In “Biophony,” a complex and sonically dense poem, Moeckel names what is there, mining the rich lexicon of the biologist, but then steps past that reliable post to let the sounds of the words score the encounter:

                  Say milk thistle,

propogule. Might blossoms
be songbooks? For hours
mythlings in bark slats toot &

holler leaky never nevers.
These chants of monkshood,

these kickbacks too camouflage
for reentry, the way damselfly
never lands the same way once.

The lever in this poem is the poet’s conviction that the very qualities of sound offer a sturdy container for meaning—not just connotative or denotative meaning, but sound as a unit of meaning in its own right.

                             The cochlea,
the phonic, the barb. Heard

hoofprints. The blood heavy
& needing let. Yes, to sharpen
the comb on the flesh, wetten it,

press—surely belief forages
from the tongues it speaks.

Moeckel’s diction is fresh and his ear well-tuned; these poems are a pleasure to read out loud as they wrestle with difficult questions of stewardship and environmental loss.

The poems exploring the broader ecology of the river-scene, the one that encompasses the relationship between people and wild places, are among my favorites in this collection. These poems include more traditional narratives that are occasionally hilarious (“Spittoono Lily” and “Hacky Sack as Euphoric Recall”), as well as compassionate and unsentimental depictions of family life, friendship, and youth. “Happy Family,” “Dream of My Father,” and “Trees & Stars” demonstrate a fluid intelligence and authority as Moeckel observes assorted encounters among the river’s drifters, paddlers, guides, and tourists.

“Southern Crescent” chronicles a train journey home through a contemporary mid-South landscape, “phlox in ditches, Slurpee of trumpet creeper,” an elegy to the slow dissolve of family ties:

is that woman who was my mother gone,
            is her song more thrush now than chickadee,

will I miss her inchoate leaps of mind,
            mistake her freedom as her truest gift? Dad’s fine.

The narrator’s close attention to the passing landscape is suffused with melancholy reflection, and Moeckel’s sure music guides this poem to its resonant closure:

                                                          Always looking,

always lost; and vultures, a few hoods up
            at the Brake & Lube; Piedmont miraculous with haze,

summer’s heavy equipment: candelabra of saw palmetto,
            sumac, kudzu. Lost, and ninety degrees in Buford,

and the smoking car full, and yarrow, and mullein;
            and Atlanta, fast and shiny and breathing hard.

Making a Map of the River ends with “Chattooga Mind,” an essay in which Moeckel examines his relationship with the Chattooga, a Wild and Scenic River that runs through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. It is an idiosyncratic gesture, but one that works quite well, I think. In part, the essay echoes the strategies of the poems: “Being in a boat on moving water helps one to sort the mind’s jetsam. When you look at the world from a canoe, what you see and feel suggests that we need not trust most of what we see and less of the thoughts we inherit and are taught to think.” As he describes this particular wilderness and articulates a defense of it, Moeckel charts more than a river’s length and flow or the view of it from an Appalachian ridge at dusk. He offers the attentive reader yet another way to understand this mysterious and endangered environment. Moeckel’s deep (and learned) affinity for wild places is enacted in the language of his poems and closing essay.

On the other hand, Dana Roeser’s second collection, In the Truth Room, is a face-to-face with those propulsive forces that shape contemporary life: the push and pull of a difficult marriage, raising children, the deaths of parents and friends.  Selected by Rodney Jones for the Morse Poetry Prize in 2008, Roeser’s poems are about a life in motion, crackling with wit, intelligence, and verve. (It is interesting to remember that Ellen Bryant Voigt selected Roeser’s excellent first book, Beautiful Motion, for the 2004 Morse Prize.) An eye for poignant detail and a gift for seeing the metaphorical possibilities of the everyday characterize Roeser’s best work. Throughout In the Truth Room, the reader feels the pressure of autobiography, the poet’s lived experience, conveyed by a persona who is at once familiar and fresh. This is an artful weave—Hopper and Hopkins, Kinko’s, Keats, and Fawlty Towers—ardent, odd, and luminous.

spacer In the Truth Room, by Dana Roeser
   Northeastern, 2008

The central narrative of In the Truth Room deals with the death of the speaker’s mother. These poems are longish (twenty-one poems in a hundred-plus pages) and fast-paced, consisting almost entirely of thickly enjambed tercets that stair-step down the page. Roeser’s diction is conversational but not superficial, ranging from American plain-speak to something more elevated and sacramental. This is a volume of poetry that can be read from beginning to end as one might read a novel.

From the opening poem, “Night,” to the title poem which closes the collection, Roeser zigzags through a catalog of memories and emotions, many focused on the death of her distant and difficult mother. Roeser crafts these scenarios into poignant and deft lyric poems:

                       I love the night. In the morning,
my husband’s mother loves him and bakes him
            an apple pie. In the morning, he

                       wakes early and writes clever
poems to place on her doorstep. My time is the night.
            Negative of his positive. The world

                       in which I am loved—because it is
not the world. But the world’s moon, its reflection. My mother
            only wanted to nap. I can see that

                        now, because I have become her.
It was not the nap. At three in the afternoon.
            It was the solitude. It was

                        reprieve from daylight. She made a stab
at the tourist hot spots, the wholesome outings. By
            afternoon she couldn’t stand the homilies,

                        the group leg iron. She had to go
to bed! I am just like her.

As the poem continues, her father’s cheerful “new girlfriend,” who “doesn’t have a mean streak,” has replaced the speaker’s mother: “After one hundred years of // terror, we flock to her, / cling to her daylight”; yet it is only the speaker’s mother who can offer solace, “a place without shadow, / that paradise, the night.” Roeser’s phrasing and diction are crisp, natural, and direct, yet the poems unapologetically engage with mystery and even epiphany.

Elizabeth Bishop observed that poetry is a way of thinking with one’s feelings, and this approach certainly characterizes Roeser’s work. Her strategy is to foreground a speaker whose voice is both colloquial and spontaneous, pitched and undeniably elegiac. In “Midwestern Summer: My Dead Mother as Muse,” the speaker describes a cycle of mixed signals sent by her mother to silence, confuse, or otherwise flummox her: a dragonfly, “to / sew children’s mouths shut—their noses, ears, / and whole heads too, if // necessary—when they speak / out of turn.” The teasing continues: a big snake, ripe blackberries tangled in bramble (“‘Do you think it’s a picnic / here in the Bardo?’”), and an unearthly bluebird. Then the wisecracking tone ceases, and the register shifts as the speaker spills the sadness that is at the poem’s center:

                        I remember the new
black silk pantsuit I wore at my mother’s
            funeral, as if I could ever

                       approach the dead’s
iridescent splendor. I hear the sound of
            birdcall, my mother’s

                       laughter, watch the exotic
bluebird vanish down the creek bed
            into the thicket of

                       the other world,
leaving me to choke
            on the dust of this.

These are expansive, lively, and evocative poems that explore the connection between grief and consolation. Through accumulating detail, the consonance of visual and aural elements, and a tendency to work associatively around a theme or image, Roeser creates what are essentially essays in verse.

In his introduction to this volume, Rodney Jones writes, “I would like to put In the Truth Room in many parts of the bookstore: grief and healing; humor; feminism; religion; memoir—but only because the books in these sections sell more than poetry.” Among my own favorite poems in this collection are “What Did the Children Know and When Did They Know It?,” “The Fire of London,” “Maple Tree: Wound,” and “In the Truth Room.” The title poem is a tour de force of flashback, wry insight, reflection, and dream. The speaker careens from a medieval chapel in France to Carrollton, Georgia, (“I was hamstrung; I was / landlocked; I was cul-de-sacked; shanghaied; // in short, trapped. It was humid and miserable . . . ”) to a hard-earned wisdom and insight. From the tangled and startling associations of the poem, this confession:

                                            The truth room, indeed,

                        in which sits my sorrowful mother. Will
I ever live on the planet

                        without the image of her downcast
black-haired head at the very center, in the

truth room of my consciousness? Irreparably
            sad. Inconsolable.

                        My own kind of Blessed Sacrament,
which, God help me, I cannot help

            but adore.

Loss, pleasure, regret—none of it is generalized or glossed over here. Roeser does not—cannot—look away, and neither can the reader.

In writing a poem, as in making a map, the creator must continually select one thing over another, in order to show us something of value we might otherwise never see. In Moeckel and Roeser, we have perceptive guides, willing to make risky forays on our behalf. In “Cross-Forward,” Moeckel writes, “To know me—my mercy—you have to be bold, / vulnerable, fluent / in your faith, // and numb to nothing.” These lines capture beautifully the rewards offered here by two who are willing to run ahead, look back, beckon us on.  end

Thorpe Moeckel is the author of Odd Botany (Silverfish Review Press, 2002), which won the 2000 Gerald Cable Book Award. He has also published a chapbook, Meltlines (The Van Doren Company, 2001). His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Orion Nature Quarterly, Shenandoah, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Moeckel currently serves as assistant professor of English at Hollins University.

Dana Roeser is the author of two collections from Northeastern, In the Truth Room (2008) and Beautiful Motion (2004), each of which won the Morse Poetry Prize. She was awarded the 2005-2006 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellowship, and her work has appeared in such journals as The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Shade, and Pool.

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