Review by Marcus Smith
IF NO MOON
by Moira Linehan
Southern Illinois University Press
Crab Orchard Series
1915 University Press Drive
SIUC Mail Code 6806
Carbondale, IL 62902-6806
2007, 80pp., paper, $14.95
Moira Linehan begins her debut collection, If No Moon, with a telling passage from Seamus Heaney’s “To a Dutch Potter in Ireland”:
To have lived it through and now be free to give
Utterance, body and soul–to wake and know
Every time that it’s gone and gone for good, the thing
That nearly broke you–
We sense before the first poem the book’s general trajectory and outcome–the poet will survive and transcend something painful. This is like knowing the plot of a play and watching it for the how not the what of its stagecraft. The what here–Linehan’s husband’s gradual death from cancer–we quickly learn, and as for the how, the poems keep mostly to a plain, sober course of grief and mourning. Along the way one can respect the depth of feeling presented, but frequently miss mystery, a feeling that often elevates competent poetry to excellent poetry.
This is not to say that Linehan isn’t very capable of raising her level above the literal and descriptive. Somewhat deceptive, in fact, in terms of the whole book, is the long opening poem “Quarry,” which does establish a tone of the unsayable that poetry has always depended upon for emotional depth. For instance, in this observed narrative about a body missing at the bottom of a quarry reservoir, the quarry serves as a symbol of personal uncertainty. While the speaker wants to “see this story/settled,” she knows that her own current history is deeply confused:
Of course I know my own mind,
though I’ve tossed so much there,
it’s hard to say what I’d bring up.
From here on, however, Linehan and the reader mostly know what will get brought up. In the very next poem (“Penelope”) Linehan tells us: “what I must now learn in middle age:/there is no other work but starting over…” The poem itself, a reminiscence about her mother hemming a childhood skirt, seems intent of removing mystery: “…maybe/even then, I sensed the undoing that could happen…” In its place are workman-like descriptions of the daily duties of taking care of a dying spouse–the monkish devotion (“Vow of Stability”), the quickly diminishing hope (“…one day more. Go for that.” –- “Just Name It”), the power of love as gratitude (“… I could hear in his Thank you/ he’d been waiting all those weeks just for that.” –- “What He Did for Me”).
A few more surprises– to Linehan and us–do occur for the good of the work. In an epistolary poem to a monk, Linehan confesses to wanting to leave her husband before he dies. She doesn’t, but her feelings turn the commonplace transcendent:
Nothing will obscure what has always
been there, my longing to lie down beside him only him,
lifting me, letting me rise to him through rafters.
In terms of imagery, Linehan is fond of the conventional motif of wings as a metaphor for her heart. In “Another Waking,” she feels like a moth “that goes nowhere” and has “nowhere to land.” In “The Route Grief Takes,” she compares her sorrow to the migratory monarch butterfly who never returns as she speculates to herself: “It could be/you will never know grief as migratory.” More interestingly, “Crows” inverts the “straight as a crow flies” cliché, as Linehan’s crow-like heart “zigzags” everywhere in irregular lines of feeling. The confusion resulting is genuine enough:
Try reading those lines
for a sense of this world, the heart’s weight,
what keeps you in the air, keeps you going
back to where you’ve just come from…
And so by the midway point of the book, Linehan, turning now to seafaring imagery, finds herself “set…/on a ship no known country will let dock.” (“The Pilgrim’s Way”) She begins a pilgrimage to Ireland, her ancestral home. The books gets some needed distance from her years of grieving. Bittersweet memories of her dead parents intercede. The ancient manuscripts monks prepared seem consolation for Ireland’s “history of widows.” “The terror of losing hold” still haunts her on the cliffs of Inishmor, and Freudian longings to return to her mother’s womblike arms beckon (“Going Back”). But in “All Over Again,” Linehan can suddenly see an ironic if not comic side to her love for her husband, whose self-absorption when well, she realizes, would remain were they to meet in heaven, while her own private and poetic journeys have run their course towards renewed self-awareness:
What’s ever what it seems? What’s this poem?
but a mosaic of stories and spoils,
when it was legend I’d been after,
key to let me locate somewhere, anywhere.
At last she can move on to “The New Part”:
though here’s the new part: lately the waters
recede, sometimes for weeks, all on their own,
or maybe it’s the moon’s doing. No need
to describe what was left behind…
In “Back” she can return to the pleasures of the world:
This, after all, is how I came back
back into place in this world, all suckle and juice–
plum, tomato, chilled wine, even plain water
dribbling down my chin. How long was I gone
in grief. Almost too long…”
I’m here to report no one comes back
except by desire, that sinuous pleasure
snaking along each limb, leading you forward
and back as you reach for ripe peach, dark grapes.”
If No Moon can now end hopefully. Her “Ars Poetica” typifies the back and forth of the book between grief and trying to break through it. The poem compares poetry to Penelope’s knitting and unknitting, in this case as an “unstitching of errors,” and an at times claustrophobic book of grieving has opened up into mythic allusion and personal commitment to both the courage to mourn and the courage to cease from mourning.
Ultimately, though, questions of style and content remain. Are a few lines at book’s end about the pleasures of wine and fruits enough to convincingly transcend grief? Does Linehan’s prosaic idiom, meant for reader identification, work better than the highly personal and self-dramatizing modes of Confessional expression–say by a Plath or Lowell–which proclaim their brilliancy? How compelling can a plain expression of pain be when it doesn’t risk melodrama? How commonly can one present common experience?
Marcus Smith’s work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the US, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Austria and Japan such as Atlanta Review’s 10th Anniversary Anthology, Southern Poetry Review, Greensboro Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Shop, Confrontation and Acumen. He recently received a Poets on the Lake Festival prize in Lake Orta, Italy. Born in England, he lives with his family in the United States, where he has reviewed for Pleiades, Rattle and other journals and is a contributing editor to Hunger Mountain. A graduate of Williams College with a MA in Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, he earned his MFA at Vermont College as a Merit Fellow. (www.marcussmithpoetry.com)