Jeanne Heuving

Jeanne Heuving: On "The Paper Nautlius"

If "Bird-Witted" depends for its meaning on a conventional narrative sequence and the contrast between the quick instinctive bird and the slow, intellectual cat, "The Paper Nautilus" is unified through its central symbol, a chambered nautilus shell, and an opposition between inner and outer. The poem, in fact, was written as a gift to Elizabeth Bishop in return for her gift to Moore of an actual nautilus shell. Moore herself seems to have had mothering as well as mentoring inclinations toward the younger Bishop--a kind of mothering that, like the nurturance provided by the chambered nautilus and Moore's own mother, helps by hindering the young. Indeed, as noted previously, Moore seemed to have taken on the behavior of her own mother and urged Bishop--contrary to Bishop’s own poetic interests--to express "significant values."

"The Paper Nautilus," about the act of creation as maternal protectiveness and watchfulness, moves from images of an externality, to an internality, and back again:

[. . . .]

The poem initially repudiates external enclosures--"teatime fame" and "commuters’ comforts"--in the interest of its own definition of an internal and internalized enclosure, love, outwardly symbolized by the nautilus shell. The internality which the poem proposes, while highly intimate, is not stifling: the paper nautilus may "bury" the eggs but it does not "crush" them. The strength of the eggs to free themselves is emphasized by comparing them to Hercules who, although "bitten by a crab loyal to the hydra," succeeded in killing the hydra. The paper nautilus as both crab and hydra, keeps her young eggs from hatching too easily, lest in reaching their full size too quickly they are hindered to succeed, rather than hindered tosucceed. (The ambiguity of "hindered to succeed" may be an insiders joke for Bishop, an acknowledgment by Moore of the potentially negative effects of an intense maternal watchfulness.) The poem concludes with its own freed eggs--an external image of arms wound around a Parthenon horse, freely electing love--that links an internal love to its outer appearance, it’s "chiton-folds."

Despite its appealing and careful definitions, "The paper nautilus," in comparison with Moore’s earlier poems, depends on and reinscribes the conventional oppositions of internal and external, valuing the former over the latter.

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992. Copyright 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

Jeanne Heuving: On "Bird-Witted"

Although most of "Bird-Witted" is told from the vantage of the birds' nest, Moore briefly breaks the ongoing present of her narrative to include a vision of "the remote / unenergetic sun- / lit air before / the brood was here." Like the presence of the piebald cat, the thought of the brood's previous and utter absence creates a pall. The small aside gives a dusky center to the poem, as powerful as the unspeakable truths of sexuality and kinship central to many of Faulkner's fiction.

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

Jeanne Heuving: On "A Grave"

In "A Grave," Moore begins with a meditation on the impossibility of seeing the sea, when a "Man looking into the sea" takes "the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself." Moore calls attention to two difficulties here: the problem of seeing "through" a man, including a man's viewpoint, and the related problem of establishing herself as a centered speaker when she cannot stand "in the middle of this." Moore's depiction of the sea, correspondingly emphasizes its opacity over its translucency and its surface activities over its symbolic meanings. While Moore may well have written this poem out of a personal crisis that involved thoughts of suicide, the speaker reminds herself that to seek relief in the sea is not to be mirrored in any improved way or to be freed of herself. The speaker works her way out of her crisis by establishing and confronting the actuality or literality of the sea and of death, and her difference from them.

The form of "A Grave" bears an inverse relation to the poetic genre described by M.H. Abrams as the greater Romantic lyric. In the greater Romantic lyric, a speaker resolves his initial sense of crisis through meditation on a natural scene. Typically the speaker’s initial mood of unhappiness or dejection is transformed through an aspect of change in the scene itself--sudden winds, for example, or a clearing sky. Through his meditation, the speaker "achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem." For Abrams, then, the typical pattern of this kind of lyric is out-in-out; that is, the speakers attention is first focused outside of himself, then turns inward, and then returns to the world around him. The speaker, in fact, may be seen to possess a highly specular relation to the outer scene, projecting his problems onto it and eventually finding in it a happier reflection.

Moore's "A Grave" reverses this pattern. This poem begins and ends with a short meditation, positing a lengthy scenic description in the middle of the poem. Further, it is precisely through the speaker’s separation from the natural scene, which in dominant Romantic iconography is feminine, that she achieves a positive resolution of her crisis. In Moore's poem, the sea prohibits the self-projection and identification prominent in (male) Romantic poems, for it is "quick to return a rapacious look." The sea's "look" is very different from the viewer’s gaze, for her "look" can be destroyed:

There are others beside you who have worn that look—

whose expression is no longer a protest; the fish no longer 

            investigate them

for their bones have not lasted:

Whether Moore is alluding to her own thoughts about suicide, or to those of others, she repudiates suicide as a meaningful action. The sea is not a mirroring surface, but an actual grave. Consequently, it is man's surface activity--his particular and careful acts--and not his self -projections, which ultimately save him. Whereas men "lowering nets" unconsciously "desecrate this grave," "as if there were no such thing as death," the speaker of this poem, conscious of the ultimate meaning of penetrating the depths of the sea, trains her vision to the surface:

The wrinkles progress among themjselves in a phalanx—

        beautiful under networks of foam,

and fade breathlessly while the sea rustels in and out of the

        seaweed;

the birds swin through the air at top speed, emitting cat-calss

        as heretofore—

the tortoise-shell scourges about the feet of the cliffs, in

        motion beneath them

As do greater Romantic lyrics, Moore's poem becomes more intense near the end. But, unlike these lyrics, the intensity causes the speaker to become more conscious of her meditation on the outer scene, as the sound of birds and bell-buoys make "noises" in what has previously been an almost entirely visual representation. The poem resolves its initial questions about perspective and of seeing the sea with an understanding of the opacity of the ocean and what the ocean is not:

and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouse and noise of 

        bell buoys,

advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in 

        which dropped things are bound to sink—

in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor 

        consciousness.

The tone of the ending is intriguing, sounding both of victory and defeat. But it is precisely because of its irresolute and provisional perspective, a perspective that does not claim too much in the face of death, that the poem can reach closure. Importantly, the poem concludes with "consciousness," not "volition," for it is the speaker’s unswerving awareness of the sea as a grave and not her will to power over it that allows her to resolve her crisis. Although Pound suggested that Moore invert the order of consciousness and volition to create a stronger ending, Moore elected to keep the order of her words as written. Unwilling to sentimentalize her own personal powers by urging a notion of will in the face of death, the speaker, and presumably Moore, establishes her strength ultimately through her circumspect consciousness of this grave.

The overall effect of this poem is of a kind of containment, as if everything could be known only through its most pronounced boundedness. As a woman, Moore’s speaker is traditionally associated with the natural scene and with death itself; Moore resolves her speaker’s crisis by establishing the literalness of the sea and death, as entities entirely apart from and different than herself.

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

Jeanne Heuving: On "Sojourn in the Whale"

"Sojourn in the Whale" addresses the problem of "every kind of shortage" with which feminine presences, such as Ireland, must contend. "Sojourn in the Whale" is one of Moore's few published poems of feminine complaint. However, it is a complaint that enacts its own victory over those "men" who would patronize Ireland's struggles, failing to take any responsibility for her "shortages," but rather blaming them on her "feminine temperament" and "native incompetence." And while the poem is ostensibly about Ireland, it is also probably about Moore, who was Irish, and her artistic struggles:

        You have been compelled by hags to spin

        gold thread from straw and have heard men say: 'There is

                        a feminine

temperament in direct contrast to

 

ours which makes her do these things. Circumscribed by a

    heritage of blindness and native

    incompetence, she will become wise and will be forced to

            give

in.

In addition to having "to spin gold from straw," several other enterprises that lreland's temperament purportedly makes her do are "Trying to open locked doors with a sword, / threading the points of needles, planting shade trees / upside down." Each of these magical, fairy-tale endeavors involves an activity in which the physical properties of the "things" present an "obstruction to the motive that they serve," but are also enhanced by their unusual use. That is, while the poem conveys the frustration inherent in these endeavors, it also relishes their magical improbability. While the length and threat of a sword make it hardly the tool to open a locked door, it is intriguing to imagine the turning of such a small mechanism as a lock with the even smaller, distant tip of a sword. Likewise, while it is impossible to thread the eyeless point of a needle, the familiar difficulty of threading needles is intensified by imagining a thread pointing at the narrow, unperforated end. And shade trees indeed become trees of the shade if they survive a planting which would place their dense foliage pointed down into an even denser earth.

John Slatin in The Savage's Romance discusses "Sojourn in the Whale" as an example of Moore's struggle to maintain "an imperviousness" that in the end is overwhelmed by "common experience" and acknowledgment of her indebtedness to the larger literary tradition. At this time in her life, argues Slatin, Moore is dependent on her isolation as a form of self-protective identity and so willfully guards it. Like Ireland, Moore is obtusely still "trying to open locked doors with a sword." However, in not taking into account the alienating languages in which Moore as a woman must write--her representational as well as other material "shortages"--Slatin fails to appreciate both the dimensions of Moore's struggles and the extent of her achievement in this poem. Moore's felt isolation is her shared "feminine experience," and thus her relation to the literary tradition is necessarily oblique. As is Ireland's art, Moore's art lies in diligently carrying through impossible feats--attending to without falsely resolving the contradictions that structure her literary endeavors, and her existence. Indeed, Moore's imaginative care in conceiving impossible feats caused by "shortages" reveals her desire to share the "common experience" of feminine and oppressed others.

The poem concludes with a wonderful image of rising water. Like the complacent "men's" speech set "in motion" in such poems as "To a Steam Roller" and "To Be Liked By You Would Be a Calamity," the men's patronizing observation about water set "in motion" is their own undoing:

"... she will become wise and will be forced to give 

in. Compelled by experience, she

 

will turn back; water seeks its own level": and you

        have smiled. "Water in motion is far

        from level." You have seen it when obstacles happened to

                    bar

the path--rise automatically

The water is the poem's own rising anger, coolly stated. However, it is not an anger bent on convincing those who would find the anger only another example of a "feminine / temperament," but an anger intent on washing away what it did not originate, rising as freely and as spontaneously as a smile. It is a "byplay more terrible in its effectiveness / than the fiercest frontal attack." It is Moore's "white ink"; her laugh of the Medusa. And while this poem is motivated by considerable anger, it rises above this anger in its imaginative portrayal of feminine activity that is finally superior to the usual functioning of swords, needles, and shade trees--warring men, domesticated women, and established knowledge.

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

Jeanne Heuving: On "Poetry"

In "Poetry," Moore turns decisively away from the modes of contrariety and the fantastic, though the poem shares other characteristics of Moore's earlier adverse poetry. Moving between address and description, she begins with her best known (adverse) line, "I, too, dislike it," and attempts, but fails, to provide a definition of poetry that is not "entangled in the negative." The terms and examples Moore uses to define poetry proliferate in a relation of supplementarity rather than unity as can be seen in the displacement of "genuine" from the primary term to be investigated at the beginning of the poem to one of two terms--along with "raw material"--at the conclusion of the poem. Furthermore, Moore's implied audience changes from those who seem to have every right to dislike poetry to those who earn, through appropriate attention to poetry the honorific comment: "then you are interested in poetry." The beginning and ending of the poem are as follows:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all

            this fiddle.

    Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one

            discovers in

    it after all, a place for the genuine.

 

----------------------------

 

            In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, 

the raw material of poetry in 

    all its rawness and 

    that which is on the other hand

        genuine, then you are interested in poetry

In "Poetry" Moore is caught between two conflicting impulses: the need and desire to define poetry universally and generally--to "come / At the cause of the shouts"--and to engage irreducible particulars and expressions. While in her later collage poetry she allows whatever positive definition her poems provide to emerge in and through juxtaposed elements, here she is pulled in two directions at once, much like the bat in this poem, "holding on upside down or in quest of something to / eat." Notably, Moore does not attempt to define poetry from her position as maker but as audience--a position that enables her to establish her stance "elsewhere."

Most critics of this poem have noted that for Moore the genuine is an inexpressible quality--"a magnetism, an ardor, a refusal to be false"--which cannot be directly translated into art or the written word. Consequently, this poem is frequently interpreted as an attempt to realize the unrealizable. Establishing this struggle as indeed central to the poem, John Slatin has criticized "Poetry" as another example from Moore's early work in which she refuses "'to go in,' making instead a virtue of her own isolation." Slatin fails to consider that Moore's need to assert her autonomy may in fact be her need to assert her own difference from a poetic tradition and language which do not represent her. Moore cannot achieve the "genuine" in her poetry for she remains outside the centered vision of a masculinist "universal" poetics that would allow her the semblance of an unmediated "real." While Moore desperately wants to define this activity of poetry that she has given so much of her life to, each assertion is confounded by subsequent assertions, so that it is in fact quite difficult to tell what Moore is recommending as poetry or the genuine. Indeed, Moore writes her definition of poetry largely by spelling out the ways we do not have poetry, as she progressively abandons the definitions and examples she puts forth.

Not only is it difficult to tell what Moore is or is not recommending, but the perspective from which any one aspect of the poem can be considered frequently shifts. For example, after initially praising poetry as "a place for the genuine," Moore lists bodily reactions that seem to be the stimulus for, or the response to, or emblematic of, the genuine, or perhaps all three. Furthermore, as Slatin notes, these examples provide a provisional definition of the genuine even as they are in turn defined by it.

        Hands that can grasp, eyes

        that can dilate, hair that can rise

        if it must, these things are important not because

            a

 

high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but

                because they are

    useful; when they become so derivative as to become

                unintelligible

    the same thing may be said for all of us, that we

        do not admire what

        we cannot understand:

While grasping hands, dilating eyes, and rising hair are associated with the genuine as actions that occur spontaneously and cannot be controlled, they are also laden with associations of gothic fakery and disingenuousness. . . .

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

Jeanne Heuving: On "No Swan So Fine"

In Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," and Moore's "No Swan So Fine," the poetic speakers retain the same relation to others and otherness as in the poets' previous poems. However, in these poems the others are the visual and verbal embodiment of a culture which is passing and changing. Indeed, Prufrock and Mauberly address the problem of identity in a culture which no longer reflects them. But whereas in the "Portraits" the male speakers establish at least a provisional identity through their others, their femmes and ladies, in these later poems their own centrality in a culture with which they are out of step haunts them in the spectre of men they would rather not be. Although they blame the age's "tawdry cheapness" and "one night cheap hotels," they also intimate social and psychological changes to which they cannot adequately respond, They cannot "forge Achaia" or even "force the moment to its crisis." Conversely, in Moore's "No Swan So Fine," her speaker, who does not seek to be reflected by the larger culture, is able both to mourn the passing culture represented by the "still waters of Versailles" and to celebrate the new order in her vision of the swan at the end of the poem: "at ease and tall. The king is dead." Indeed, by concluding her poem with the celebratory "The king is dead," Moore establishes a historical cause for her non-specular seeing and for the "elsewhere" of her vision. . . .

In Moore's "No Swan So Fine," there is no central speaker who experiences diminishment or aggrandizement because she is or is not reflected by her culture or by its others. Of her china swan Moore has no cause to remark, as does Pound in "Mauberly," "The glow of porcelain / Brought no reforming sense / To his perception / Of the social inconsequence," since for Moore consciousness and the objects of her contemplation neither oppose nor reflect each other. Indeed, "No Swan So Fine" focuses on those social and power relations which determine consciousness and being. The "gondoliering" swan in the first stanza who wears a collar "to show whose bird it was" is replaced by the swan in the second stanza which "perches," "at ease and tall," now that the "king is dead." Certainly, one of the achievements of the poem is the way it moves so assuredly and convincingly from an elegiac vision of a passing Versailles, to a mournful and somewhat comic depiction of a captive swan, and then to a healthful and life-giving embodiment of a swan in a "kingless" country . . . .

How Moore invokes three very different visions in such a short poem is remarkable, While the speaker's stance of moving through and across visions without worrying about her identification or lack of identification with them allows for this change, it is achieved by delicate shifts in imagery and language which maintain similarities while interjecting differences. The initial, distilled vision of absence and dying brought forth in "'No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles'" is replicated in the vision of the swan, only the vision is of a less absolute absence and death. As part of the passing elegance of Versailles, the swan is to be mourned, but, as a bird who wears a "toothed gold / collar on to show whose bird it was," it also seems mournful. By replicating her syntax, "No Swan So Fine," "'No water so still . . .'" and "No swan ... so fine," Moore reproduces the mirroring effects of the still waters, intoning the swan with the same majesty with which she refers to Versailles. However, by shifting her vision from something to be mourned to something that is itself mournful, she introduces a slight note of comedy into this tragic scene. The sound relations of soft consonants and open vowels convey aurally the swan's limp and pathetic "look askance" and "gondoliering legs." Yet the effect is also one of opening into a sense of tragic emptiness and loss, conveyed by both Versailles and the captive swan.

However, while Moore presents a dying Versailles to be mourned, she also plants the seeds for the next stanza: part of what is to be mourned is the swan's captivity. In the second stanza, the harder consonants and the multi-syllabic words convey a renewed vigor as the swan, a Venus or a phoenix, seems to rise up from "the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers." Indeed, the first stanza would seem in retrospect to be a softening, romanticizing mirror for the actual present artifact in the second stanza. The "miscellany" of strange things--"tree of cockscomb / tinted buttons, dahlias, [and] seaurchins"--are the "everlastings," and not the culture, which gave rise to them. Moore's very invention of the word "everlastings" conveys the changed vision, from a Versailles which would be seen as a symbol of eternal qualities to an existence in which such lofty qualities are "noun-ized" into particular, literal manifestations.

By not attempting to establish her authority through cultural mirrors, Moore has moved assuredly through changing visions--visions which locate the cause for their own decentered consciousness, "The king is dead." In many ways, Moore attains the kind of seeing that Pound is attempting to effect in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" That she succeeds where he fails may well be because her speaker is not attempting to achieve a conclusive or even a provisional identity through the objects of her contemplation. The poem's subtle but absolute execution allows for an understanding of the delicate but revolutionary shift caused by the death of all internal and external kings: "that which is great because something else is small."

From Omissions are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. Copyright © 1992 by Wayne State University Press.

Jeanne Heuving: On "Portrait of a Lady"

Williams, in his portrait, like Moore, utilizes the Renaissance convention of the beauty depicted by her parts:

Your thighs are appletrees 

whose blossoms touch the sky . . . .

 

               Your knees 

are a southern breeze—or 

a gust of snow . . . .

 

        Ah yes—below 

the knees, since the tune 

drops that way, it is 

one of those white summer days, 

the tall grass of your ankles 

flickers upon the shore . . . . (35)

In the quixotic last line of the poem—"I said petals from an appletree"—the speaker unequivocally asserts his presence over the parts, for it is he who "says" them (36).

From "Gender in Marianne Moore's Art: Can'ts and Refusals." Sagtrieb. Vol. 6, No. 3

Jeanne Heuving: On "Portrait d'une Femme"

In Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme," the partial and secondary nature of this "femme" made of parts is openly declared:

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea, 

London has swept about you this score years 

And bright ships left you this or that in fee: 

Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things, 

Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price. 

Great minds have sought you—lacking someone else. 

You have been second always. 

The poem concludes: 

                                                 and yet 

For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, 

Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff: 

In the slow float of differing light and deep, 

No! there is nothing! In the whole and all, 

Nothing that's quite your own. 

        Yet this is you. (Personae 61) 

Pound may not be projecting his bodily parts onto his beloved, but his femme is certainly a projection of partial and somewhat worthless knowledges.

From "Gender in Marianne Moore's Art: Can'ts and Refusals." SAGETRIEB 6.3