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A voice worthy of a larger stage

Lightning at Dinner Poems Jim Moore Graywolf Press: 72 pp., $14 paper

January 01, 2006|Benjamin Lytal | Benjamin Lytal writes a column on fiction for the New York Sun.

ONE of the most political poems in "Lightning at Dinner," the sixth and latest collection from Minnesota poet Jim Moore, is also one of the most precious.

A short poem, it is called "Against Empire":

Small olives taste best.

Small stars shine farthest.

Small birds call

most sweetly. Small lives,

we are small, small lives.

Small olives are good, but do small stars really shine farthest? No. They shine the longest, but that bears no direct relation to brightness. Moore is taking a willful stand, ignoring the facts as if to demonstrate his political desperation, as if to recommend ignorance itself. He is a regional poet, having lived mostly in Minnesota since the publication of his first collection, in 1975, and his poems are a fine contribution to American poetry, which is an aggregate of regional literatures. But, as is true of many who prize modesty, his work seems sometimes to have cheated itself.

Dana Gioia, before he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote an essay on "The Anonymity of the Regional Poet," which argued that the American poets with the most popular appeal are often the least known, because their plain-spoken styles do not interest the academy or the critics. The subject of his essay was Ted Kooser, then a relatively unknown Nebraskan, now U.S. poet laureate, appointed during Gioia's tenure at the NEA. Moore is of a different political stripe, and is more traveled than Kooser, writing often of his summers in Spoleto, Italy, but he is everywhere local, and what Gioia wrote about Kooser is true of Moore's work: "His style is accomplished but extremely simple -- his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational."

Gioia noted of Kooser, "Reviewers find him eminently unnewsworthy," and here too the same might be said of Moore, were plain-spokenness not becoming a major trend in American poetry. Robert Pinsky, who was appointed poet laureate in 1997, started the Favorite Poem Project, which publishes anthologies of Americans' favorite poems, along with their commentaries. Billy Collins, appointed laureate in 2001, has become a phenomenon, outselling more ambitious poets with his poems of easy observation. Kooser continues the promotion of plain-spoken, grass-roots poetry with "American Life in Poetry," a weekly column appearing in some 70 newspapers that highlights the work of "Illinois poet Lisel Mueller," "Texas poet Janet McCann," "Ohio poet Kevin Griffith" and the like -- almost all of them obscure poets, presented not as extraordinary voices but as everyday citizens. Perversely, populist regionalism has become a top-down trend.

It is worthwhile, then, to consider Moore, who has developed on his own. In his first book, "The New Body," he tried to be local and global at the same time. Its first poem refers to the "Minnesota thatness" of nature but compares the "hunger" of local flora to the political hunger of poets Miguel Hernandez, under Franco, and Osip Mandelstam, under Stalin. The regionalist impulse in this first collection functions as an anchor to keep the young dreamer down to earth. In the title poem, the moment of rebirth is encapsulated in an intimate anecdote: "Something snapped, / Like the deer we startled last year at Canby."

Eventually, Moore had to choose between his observations of the local and at least one kind of worldliness. Thirteen years after "The New Body," he published "The Freedom of History," which includes the perfectly plotted long poem "For You," a description of the poet's deliberations about joining the war in Vietnam: "And we had so wanted to go on drifting, / floating on the moment's shifting current / as we learned to give the poems we tried to write / a chance to rise, waveringly," he writes, saying goodbye to an aleatory poetic process. Forced to make a decision, the poet goes for a walk, and in his observations of local permanence, he decides to stay.

I couldn't get enough

of the men with their bent heads in the bar,

the sled, the swing.

This decision cost Moore 10 months in federal prison for resisting the draft, and even in his new collection Moore's emotional life is measured in costs and outcomes. Here, his appreciation of the sled recalls William Carlos Williams' famous short poem: "so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens." Williams is the patron saint of locally oriented writing. "This primitive and actual America must sober us," he wrote, advocating an America even more "actual" than the iconic regionalism of Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost. Williams believed in "the objective intimacy of our hand to mouth, eye to brain existence."

Moore retains some of the urgency of description that Williams had, but his descriptions, however "eye to brain," always detour, for a little more analysis.

I remember my mother toward the end,

folding the tablecloth after dinner

so carefully,

as if it were the flag

of a country that no longer existed,

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