Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2017. 64 pages. $14.95.
In “What It Was,” one of the first poems in Rosalie Moffett’s collection June in Eden, a mother speaks elegantly and with great wisdom of tomatoes, which appreciate a hot, dry spell when the time comes to ripen: “Hardship is good / for the vines. Unscrewed the soaker-hose. They’re too happy / to set fruit.” Like her speaker, Moffett’s inclination as a poet is to leave the soaker hose on—her poems are leafy and lush in their imagery and sound effects. To read them feels like taking a cool sip straight from the spigot. It’s Edenic really, how Moffett can keep sending out runners while simultaneously ripening such good fruit. Consider for example, the title poem “June in Eden,” which pivots line by line on linguistic epiphanies made possible by a devastating and degenerative neural disease. “I have this thing, my mother / says, with memory. The thing is left / or high. The thing dissolves. . . .” A new kind of meaning is born of the hardship of this disease—lines like, “I broke, she said / my cartographer” are forced by circumstance into blooming. There is a garden of language to go along with the garden of living, and Moffett is an expert at inventing new ways to explain such experiences. “June in Eden” is a poem that celebrates how a mother lives even as she is dying, and the final line captures the hard beauty of that truth: “strawberries, as yet unmarred, / the plants sending out their runners, / covering up the garden pathways.”
In another account of a brush with mortality, this time about a car crash, Moffett finds the language for such experiences in unlikely imagistic details that brush up against a surrealist tone. “Hand-sized Explosions, the Peonies,” she titles this poem in which “The world gesticulates wildly: a girl / who has crashed her car, waving her arms, / on a country road.” She describes a moment when clouds are passing like peonies, a moment that is like looking into the glass eye of a taxidermied buffalo at a museum, a moment like feeling afraid of the scale of the ocean. It is a moment, she writes, that is too full of the shock and relief and fear of living to have a name for itself, but Moffett is good at making a word that is just on the tip of our tongues out of so many unlikely but apt metaphors. Standing beside a car with the wheel still spinning in the air, the speaker says, “I love the mock—mock turtlenecks, the mock orange tree / . . . What is enough to be named for the real.” And now we know that living in defiance of so much real fragility is what one calls a “mock,” as in a mockery or a mock-up or a mockingbird song.
The poems in this book understand deeply the pastoral nostalgia that is an inevitable by-product of a post-industrial economy, and while they extend to readers the pleasure of a peach picked fresh from a tree, they do not allow the audience to get punch-drunk on so much sweetness. In “Family Lives on a Farm,” she sorts the fantasies from the realities: “The family sorts fruit: perfect peaches / here, earwigged and bruised ones over here. They eat / the latter and sell the former.” There is sickness in the family, as well as longing and heartbreak—“The father is a clingstone,” Moffett writes, “and each / of the children has a dark little peach pit / you might see if you split them open.” And there are nice things too—indigo buntings and a family camaraderie over the difficulties of chickens and predatory raccoon. They are a family that loves and struggles like any other, and the corner of the world they live on is as fallen and falling as any other. There’s a generosity in poems like these that offers you a bruised peach, not something fancy and perfect one reserves for company.
The risk of writing poems of orchards and gardens, as Moffett so often does in this book, is that the subject can turn too sweet or become overly perfumed. But Moffett knows the benefits of a little droughty hardness. “Pastoral,” for instance, opens with an account of the speaker burying a skunk beside a coop where the rooster is still bleeding from the skunk’s bite. Nearby ants are destroying the potato crop. In the midst of violence the speaker has clearly participated in (she killed the skunk, we are meant to assume), she admonishes, “Don’t pretend / you would love life in the country / if you really have no idea.” The authoritative urgency of that tone in the midst of such an abundance of birds and eggs and also blood and blue sky is refreshingly honest. And in case you might still consider romanticizing the tedium of hours cranking the apple peeler, she insists “every time you dig a hole // there’s never enough dirt to fill it, / even when you’re burying something.” From the distance of an apartment downtown with hardly a tree to rest your parched eye on, it is easy to romanticize the natural world. Such misunderstanding only makes it harder to tell the story of why we need this kind of hard-scrabbled blooming (and the land reserves, environmental regulations, and investments in clean energy that go along with it), but Moffett understands and tells this story in its full complexity.
The music of a great metaphor, the vibrancy of vivid description would be enough to make this book a pure pleasure, but Moffett’s facility with sound should not be overlooked. “Punctuation,” for example, weaves a metaphor about apostrophes as “sea birds in their little black bodies” into a sequence of astonishingly alliterative lines on the subject of contractions, both as a grammatical construct and as an experience of loss and union. “Contraction is a kind of marriage,” she writes. “In the mash-up the O disappears / from I can not, makes you say it faster: I can’t I can’t – O.” And then she is so wise and clever in the neat little internal rhymes of the last line that follows, observing “the little gape we take / from our words, it seems important.” These are poems that are well-crafted and carefully thought through, like an orchard planted in those careful perfect rows. But equally essential to Moffett’s poetics is a wild decadence in their execution, with every line blooming out some unexpected sound or image, so that the book takes on the aesthetics of a garden that has been a little lost, a little overgrown, one full of surprises you might bite into it or pluck to twirl around in your fingers for awhile.