Whinny Moor Crossing
Michael McFee, Carolina Quarterly, Vol. 37 No. 1 (Fall 1984)
Is Judith Moffett her sex's, her generation's James Merrill? In the Ouija parlance of his Changing Light at Sandover, is she JM2? Moffett's debts to Merrill are great—personal, professional (James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry, a critical study), poetic. Her poetry displays a technical and intellectual dazzle, a sensitivity of temperament and formal facility, that echo Merrill's own irrepressible virtuosity; as she concludes a mothy terza rima in her first book, Keeping Time (LSU, 1976), "I've come to know // Too well since that cold night in Cincinnati / What barren is, and for my sorry crime / Begun to know a terror and a pity // Unsayable save through this keeping time, / These saving graces slanted rhyme and rhyme." In her new Whinny Moor Crossing, Moffett continues to keep graceful time, with the dexterity of JM1: and there are even poems dedicated to Merrill and David Jackson (DJ, JM's mate and co-conspirator in the massive Changing Light). Has she become more than Merrill's satellite, a fluent moon?
I say yes. For all she has learned from JM the elder, this JM brings something to poetry he withholds: plain emotional vulnerability, a willingness to relax the formal guard and be foolishly human. Merrill often sounds like himself in translation, common feeling polished away; Moffett, though uncomfortable doing so, will let the raw stuff show. This quality may inhere in Moffett's sex, and her poignant outsider's interest in traditional sex roles (mother with child, comforter, lover); it may be grounded in her landscape, which is more remotely northern than Merrill's in both inner and outer weather. Whatever the reason, it provides a distinctive and welcome dimension to her poetry, a depth to handsome surfaces.
Whinny Moor Crossing is Moffett's book of crossings, cruxes, crises. Besides the implicit artistic passage, to her own terra firma, there is a more literal geographical parting, evident in the three section titles: "Stockholm," "Cambridge," "Settling." "Passage," the book's prefatory poem, is a subtle overture in form and theme—the former variable but sure-footed (loose blank verse succeeded by sonnets), the latter a fretting over matters of place ("For all that being footloose is pure American, / is being homeless, really?") and purpose: "What am I doing here?" Part One, "Stockholm," is steeped in "the Scandinavian essence," the dark and chill and ritual—jogging among black-coated old ladies, watching cold birds, an All Saints' Day cemetery ceremony, making tea and submitting to sauna, viewing the Nobel ceremony on TV. In an increasingly international contemporary poetry, Moffett has staked a solid claim on Sweden: besides early poems in Keeping Time and these in Whinny Moor Crossing, she published an intervening book of translations in 1979, Gentleman, Single, Refined, and Selected Poems, 1937-1959, by Hjalmar Gullberg. 'There is a frightening loneliness about Gullberg,' Moffett wrote; despite 'a circle of devoted lifelong friends,' there remains a persistent 'solitariness' and 'loneliness' about his poetry. Moffett's own Swedish poems possess a correspondingly estranged tone: there is rich description and obvious affection for people and custom, but even a poem as warmly proficient as 'Twinings Orange Pekoe'—which deserves to be hung over every tea-drinker's pot—keeps its distance, has its own darkness:
The gas ring's hoarse exhaling wheeze,
Voice of blue flamelets, licks the kettle's
Copper underbelly, which crouches
Closer, concentrates, by degrees
Begins spellbound to match that pressure
And dragon tone. Breath crowds the slim
Tranced throat that cannot close or scream;
It spouts a rushing whooo of pleasure.
The brown potbellied pot, top doffed,
Reveals its scalded insides’ tender
Nursery blue, from which a cloud
Exudes, and from its spout a slender
Curl. It sweats and loves the tch
A lid makes popping off a tin,
The fragrance deep as leafmold, rich
As pipe tobacco, coffee, cocoa;
Loves the spoon's dry scroop, the skin-
Tight leafheap scattered in its breast
(A tannic prickle); the swift boiling
Flashflood, spoonswirl, settling flight; loves best
The steeping in the dark: blind alchemy:
Tap water, and an acid that cures leather
Stains cups and eats through glazes, pregnantly
To arch forth in a stream as brown and bright
And smoky as an eye, strain marbling up
Through milk and sugar in a stoneware cup,
White white on white.
Section Two, "Cambridge," is, like the place, more pastoral—at least at first. It opens with a 'Souvenir Sestina,' as elegant an example of that workshop-popular form as we'll ever enjoy, and closes with two long sequences. The first, '"Cambridge University Swimming Club / No Public Access to River,"' is a buoyant celebration of Moffett's Edenic bathing and basking with 'businessmen, clerks, writers, dons and students, / laborers, civil servants, engineers, / one archeologist, one librarian, and, / on really nice days, the tart old Dean of Pembroke.' But the section's tone darkens with 'Whinny Moor Crossing,' the book's crucial title poem, originally published in Carolina Quarterly in 1979. The poem follows Moffett's fog-bound hike across this fabled Yorkshire moor, through the dense heather of 'Bronté country, where / the wind's verb is wuther, where centuries out of mind / a woman would come to funerals and sing / an eerie song I know, slow, in a minor key.' Scraps of that 'Lyke Wake Dirge' recur throughout the poem, which becomes as much an inner as outer struggle, the author 'footsore, cold, wet, worried, alone / and given to the moor against my will,' trying to maintain 'the iron gates between factual and fantastic,' to resist 'a fell power old beyond thought.' 'In fog and rain,' she asks, 'night closing, what moor / is not a Whinny Moor, what Whinny Moor / isn't a state of mind? To pass this night out here...!' And then the book's crucial (pentameter!) line: 'And right here's where you pull yourself together.' After darkness in Sweden, and—following touristic interludes—near-despair on the moor, Moffett discovers purpose, resolve, the imperative voice: 'Go where you must as if a path led there. [...]
Moffett is an extremely able poet. She is also her own poet, not brandishing the union placard for any fractious local (feminists, formalists, Iowa grads), but sustaining an unspectacular but steady intelligence, proficiency, and emotional honesty. The closest she comes to enrollment is at L'ecole du JM, her poetic father-figure, returned to at the close of Whinny Moor Crossing; but that book also marks Moffett's crossing into territory wholly hers, its contours sketched above. As JM2, she enhances the original. To refine an earlier buried metaphor: Merrill may be the consummate poet of 'lapidary iridescence,' as William Harmon has said... . But though Moffett can tool a Merrill-gorgeous gem, she knows when to turn the relentless verse-wheel off and simply appreciate—by fingertip, nerve, blunt feeling—the rough-mined stone. Or, to shift the figure: in The Muse's Mineral Museum, Merrill is the curator of priceless jewelry, ushering his breathless visitors around the display cases, offering a loupe for closer inspection. Italian opera lights the air. Out back, docent Moffett has assembled the Girl Scouts for a rockhound hike. With a rustle of parkas—in case the lowering clouds actually deliver—they march off, their leader singing, to the tune of 'Amazing Grace,' the poems of Emily Dickinson.