(Grove Press, 2001)
From the Foreword by Richard Howard:
Houses, certainties, passions—they are lost, in the course of life; it is such losses, in fact, that some poetry acknowledges to be living. But as I read through this new book of Honor Moore’s, which follows upon The White Blackbird, her 1996 account of the painter Margarett Sargent, who was her grandmother; her first book of poems of 1988, accountably titled Memoir; and even Mourning Pictures, her verse play of 1974, I note with some assurance that the poetic impulse here is not simply to record loss—to mourn and thereby release the energies in us that choose to mourn rather than to founder in melancholy—but also to bear witness, to testify to the truth, to get it down not pat but right. I recognize some tonalities of this double impulse from my frequentation of many years— my audition—of the painter Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s widow, who, in the decades I knew her, was passionately concerned not only with crying the beloved countrymen of the world of art she lived in, but keeping the record straight—on occasion setting it straight, knowing herself to be in possession of privileged information. That would be a good title, if she needed an alternative one, for Honor Moore’s grave and sorrowing book of illuminations…
Booklist, July 9, 2001
Colors (“the sky is teal, the ocean, the color of a razor”) form a vital lexicon of feeling in Moore’s incandescent poems, a visual language inherited, perhaps, from her grandmother, the painter Margarett Sargent, the subject of Moore’s evocative biography, The White Blackbird (1996). Paintings often inspire her, whether she’s writing about entering the world of a specific painting, as she does in “She Remembers,” written from the point of view of a woman posing nude for Degas, or the act of painting itself, as in “Bucarest, 1989,” a bravura poem about the unavailability of oil paints, especially the color white. Moore writes with an erotic intensity and lyric virtuosity about sexual desire for both women and men and the seductiveness of dreams and memories remembered so often they become virtual works of art kept in the most private of collections. Moore ’s poems are perfectly formed yet impassioned, flames confined to red-hot grates, incantations recited to transform confession and grief into liberation and warmth.
Publishers Weekly, July 9, 2001
While most of her bios list her as a poet first and foremost, Moore has published critical essays and a biography of her grandmother, the painter Margarett Sargent, in addition to her previous book of poems. This second collection sticks closely and honestly to two fields: painters and painting, and love and sex. Moore ‘s own close attention to color and arrangement distinguish poems on work by Degas and others, and enliven others based on personal memories. One autobiographical lyric tracks “the pale gray stain/ his eyes leave in my dreams”; another juxtaposes a remembered lover with Rousseau’s ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ –“I was wearing green. Nineteen./ Flat cheap light illuminates/ a male, twenty-one.” Moore (whose first book of poems was called Memoir) also evokes—sometimes explicitly, sometimes obliquely—a great range of sexual and romantic experience, from date rape and abortion at Yale in the 1960s to lesbian love in middle age. (The collection also includes intimate elegies on family members and friends, some dead from AIDS.) Noted poet and translator Richard Howard praises Moore’s “sensuous revelry” in a brief, admiring foreword, but Moore’s openness and visual gestures often outrun the actual turns of phrase here: poems about the speaker’s body veer into stock myth-making: “moon and/ goddess, tides and gravity,/ oh bring our blood!” Other poems remember passionate lovers with lines like these: “As we stood there, she pulled me toward her/ by the belt and thrust in with her hand”; “We met at a small supper outside Paris/ one late August”; “Dear one, I have met a man who touches me so it burns.” Many readers will prize Moore ‘s brave directness, or admire its politics implications; others, however, will wonder whether the poems do justice to a complicated life.
Boston Review, December 2001
In the thirteen years between her first poetry collection, Memoir, and her second, Darling, Honor Moore wrote The White Blackbird, a biography of the artist Margarett Sargeant (Moore’s grandmother), as well as a verse play. Poetry readers who loved Memoir will be interested to note how this versatile author’s new poems are clearly influenced by her exploration of the visual arts, and her work in biography and theater. Darling is saturated with sensuality and a poet’s yearning for visual expression with elegant descriptions of light and evocations of color. In lush monologues, Moore brings to startling life the women featured in Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas’s paintings. In “The Girl in the Fur-Trimmed Dress,” the female narrator takes issue with Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous rendering of her former lover, remembering with searing clarity and affection the middle-aged body of the model as the artist, seemingly, cannot. “She remembers” is spoken in the voice of a woman in Edgar Degas’s painting, The Bath, and describes a luminous carnality, love tinged with bitterness, between artist and model (“I won’t say what we did / that I wanted again and again, only / what grief I felt in his wanting”). These two poems comment wryly on “ New Haven , 1969,” a stark recollection of another kind of artists / model scenario: innocent college student assaulted by rapacious photographer. Blunt and brave, this poem describes the story in curt, plain couplets: “It’s an infection./ I call the gynecologist. He / asks if I’ve told anyone, / prescribes, hangs up.” Where “New Haven” depicts this sorrow, other poems celebrate more tender rituals of courtship, of falling in love, of remembering love, all with Moore’s unique ability to infuse her poems with real body heat, emotional electricity, and the divine grief at the center of desire.
From “Not Betsy Ross” by Eileen Myles, The Nation, March 11, 2002
Honor Moore ‘s Darling is in many ways the most ambivalent creature of the lot. Its cover is a photo that looks like a painting; the whole question of artifice abounds in this book. It’s conventionally poetic in some ways, but the ground is unstable, the largest tease in Darling being its title. A female nude leans into her position, gazing at flowers, and so many of the poems in the book are about love; sometimes the lovers are female, sometimes male. It’s truly a midlife book about love and relationships, but the “Darling” of the title is not the woman gazing on the cover or one of the lovers or all of them. Instead, there’s a dream of a funeral in an eponymous poem toward the end of the book; it’s a family funeral, I guess. And there the dream’s narrator saw her first gay man kiss another. After which he calls him “Darling.” It puts a spin on all the poems, making this trickster aspect of love be the star. Which love? The woman on the cover thinks: Hell, what’s he gonna do now. Love is unfathomable, this poet knows.
Stylistically, Moore does not speak in excision. It’s an older ear. I’m thinking that a material everything hovers in her view, and the poems feel selected from that. We’re moving through the fullness of a world, and memory. The surprises, the replacements, are conducted almost by sleight of hand. Like Bellamy’s, this is also a poetry of class. I mean, what poetry isn’t, but here I’m thinking upper class, and the poems are full of the aches of privacy; figuratively it starts in the dark and it returns. In the book’s first poem, “Bucharest, 1989,” a painter yearns for white, but the color is unavailable. The whole of this book is richly dark. It’s hard to imagine most readers not approaching this world without a certain covetousness. In the same way that the name Robert Lowell was part of that poet’s poetry, so is “Honor Moore.” Her name approaches allegory, and even when you know she’s being daily, it’s a rarefied daily and it sings differently. A poem called “In the Dark;” however, approaches a Djuna Barnes or a Hart Crane wildness: “A goat strays/through my dreams, Doctor, a crazy dove,/and from Pontormo, a woman struck/ blind, her arms raised against the stranger.” It’s a medallion of chaos, but emotionally it’s as stamped as a coin, like an old dream that clangs long after its images are gone. I’m glad for the mystery here. The house of the book is huge, and it sheds light on the unknown. History is a place, after all, a very real and glamorous one, where strange things occur. In “Citizenship” she states: “I wake to cars raging north up a rise, a truck/banging south.” There’s a loneliness to the notation.
My sense of the real time of the book comes out of these matter-of-fact lines. The poet wakes up and you feel she is ready to move, while still swarming with dreams. You feel the pause before the gesture, and the effect is quietly awesome. In “Undertow” a woman is described: “She liked to wear bright/colors, used the word ‘sweetie” then a line later you realize it’s the poet’s mother. There’s a movie star quality to the description: “I’m tiny in her arms, as if/flat against a steep mountain.” Even as we read the lines, the poet is fading into the distance-no one is bred for this experience. The poet endures her own pathos: “Understand I don’t/believe this will ever change.” “Hollow Hill” is a swatch of prose that is not a “prose poem” but a tiny memoir of a child in a big house, where people have “old rooms;” as in “my father’s old room.” On a planet where many people spend their lives moving constantly, on “Hollow Hill” not only is the poet’s own childhood stable but her father’s is too. Her parents sleep in “the Modern Room.” The reality of this family life is uncanny, museumlike, and the child iterates herself theatrically: “They don’t let me keep the doll. I gallop back … but I will never undress her or untie the red ribbons under her chin.” How I understand this book has to do with what seems disallowed in this very ornate, very conditioned reality. So much undoing is not visibly possible. I understand for instance, how our sense of the Gothic springs out of exactly this imaginary of old, dark ancestral houses, even beautiful places where things don’t change much. Just deepen.
To be alive in these places one would become a reader of codes and elsewhere seek one’s own undoing. That “undoing” being passion, which is the subject of this book. Passion being, I hate to say, so poetically, the most necessary flag. Lines slap us in the face, almost jumping out of the poems that hold them: “Nothing heals/like that hand” she utters in “Resonance,” which I think is the finest poem in Darling. The moment of the line is followed by a sort of rejection: “We don’t have a life/together,” she says, “face toward/the child, window, the child running….” It’s a heartbreaking reply, yet the power of the moment remains with the narrator. It resounds with a very female frankness that cuts across class in terms of knowing what one has made, has done.
Perhaps he’s right about the cup.
You dig the clay or purchase it.
You cover it, keep it wet. One day
the clay calls you to model the cup
And what you’ve lived, every cup
To your lips, moves through your hands.
As a reader these new books make me feel that so much good is already on its way to us. Like Lisa Robertson says: First of all belief is paradise. The right to assemble a moment of presence—a poem, this flickering banner of passion is ours.
Copyright by the author, all rights reserved.
There were other ways that the system used to strangle artistic life. Ms. Undareanu-
Herta said that in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to find oil paints,
and virtually impossible to get hold of the color white.
—December 31, 1989
The New York Times
It was white I wanted—of snow, clouds, of sky overcast, of
a star if you take the shine from it. Usual
sound, light, and I wake—but sense a shift
of light, a spontaneous tilt in the axis of the sky.
I cannot tell you what it was that happened
but all day I worked to paint it, no image
for the change—I needed white.
August and nature past peak. I had fled grief and a city
where the dark of black had been my modifier:
red turned devilish, green somber, yellow the ocher of walls
these years of bad coal. I wanted white—
to see what stands around me, to lighten blue
to a sky I can wake up to, of baptism dress,
bridal gown, candles Christmas—
I could not find it in any shop. There was no announcement
of this unavailability of white. Could
paint daunt a city plumbed with tunnels? A sentry on each street,
his face tugged angular, body clad
the moonless starless color of sky the night
they took him from an orphanage cot, taught his hunger
luxury, his desire to move
a rote of violence. I no longer ask for white. No use writing
friends or art shops in Paris—just paint white black when
a drift of light recalls candor. They puncture tubes from Paris—
crimson, cadmium, viridian
uncoil across the customs desk, turn state
fingers colors I could paint desire. See the glint
of white on the old man’s brow,
his wife behind him hissing assent—a family of tyrants
with a maggot lust for gold. I turn from gold now,
even the ring my grandmother left. How am I capable
of this much hatred? White vertical
cities where our villages were. Cold of
my own embrace this lifetime of unheat. The routine
a Sunday like any other, then through the crowd something whines
toward rupture, his arms wild like wash in a storm, his
face as the crowd turns, no guard standing fast, silence from the white
screen, and then music. Someone will know
who first shouted, how long it took our breaths to
open with something like emotion, who carried fresh
oranges from the tunnels, cut a circle
from the center of the flag, who told the first lie.
She was not cold and I was
still a girl. Okay, I’ll never
recover that. She was tall. She
had black hair, her skin tanned fast,
dark blue eyes. I can’t remember
her teeth. She liked to wear bright
colors, used the word “sweetie”
ironically. I’ll be seventy,
her dead forty-three years, wake
angry and weeping still. She comes
down the stairs wearing black
and white. She comes down the stairs
smiling and the room swerves.
I’m tiny in her arms, as if
flat against a steep mountain.
The sky is strong, pulls at me,
but she holds. Understand, I don’t
believe this will ever change.
The Bath, c. 1895
From a distance, he makes something of me.
Even in the scant light of that darkness
my flesh burns as if his colors were true.
When he finishes, I step into the bath
naked, and he watches me as he has
the others, unspeaking, almost dead-eyed.
What are those behind me? Flowers.
He’d say it doesn’t matter what they are,
only what he makes of them. And I break
the water with my left foot, underside
of my right knee slipping down the porcelain
incline, right hand steadied by a towel
slung across the tub’s lip. I remember
how dark came, and the radiance of sheets.
My friend accompanied me to Vollard—I hoped
she could keep her face impassive. I wore
a stylish hat like that American woman
he painted once in the Louvre, her arm
long and slender as a closed umbrella.
Should commerce have kept me aloof?
I never was, from the first afternoon
he guided my leg to that angle, and bent
my nakedness until I looked like a jockey
mounting. Afterward, I unbuttoned him
and slid my hand in, pulling with my teeth
at the burnished hair near his shoulder.
We took each other between sheets
he later charcoaled. To the plain wooden bed
and its roil of orange hanging he gave half
the canvas, leaving the shadows for me
to step from air to water, from him
back into myself. I won’t say what we did
that I wanted again and again, only
what grief I felt in his wanting, which I see
now in others he painted, women
who come to him, undress for money,
and step in and out of water. My face,
praise God, is barely visible in the sedge
of paint. But I was not ashamed, even when
I lay on the floor and he touched me
with his foot. It was as if we were animals.
Look at the bath. What fills it isn’t water
but a wild smudged black, as in the countryside
when night rises, beginning at the ground.