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In "Peter," the subject matter, a cat, is easily recognizable, the logical movement of the passages relatively accessible. But different fashions of description--scientific, metaphoric--compete in the presentation:

the detached first claw on the foreleg corresponding  to the thumb, retracted to its tip; the small tuft of fronds  or katydid-legs above each eye numbering all units  in each group; the shadbones regularly set about the mouth to droop or rise in unison like porcupine-quills.

Each new mode of description redirects our attention, redefining what precedes it. It is hard to retain through these lines a natural image of a cat. The metaphors themselves represent different proportions and contexts, thus further complicating the visualization. Each part of the body is a piece of another realm. The poem goes on to play the shifting figure of the cat off against the shifting metaphors for it. That is, Moore presents a moving, multi-faceted creature, not by tracing that movement along the lines of visual conventions, but by presenting multiple images for it and thus conceptualizing motion.

In "Peter" our attention never fully breaks from a central image. But the elements of the picture are cut out of disparate depictions of life and the whole thing hangs together like nothing we have seen before. The play of the poem lies in the dialectic between the "natural" image of the cat and the internal, pictorial coherence of juxtaposed words. A tension is created between the sense of an external variety and an internal consistency, rewarding a desire for order while suggesting the inclusive density of life. It is this bidirectional pull that is the pleasure of many of Moore's "descriptive" poems. Of course poetry, with its temporal organization, has advantages over painting in presenting a thing from all sides. But Moore adopts from painters the double sense of looking at something. The impulse to find a conceptual unity within the visual multiplicity is one she shares with modernist painters. Her note from M. Krohgon on futurists could stand for her own work: "the Futurist ... has got to see feel understand and interpret the front side and the back side of things, the inside as well as the outside and the bottom as well as or better than the top."


From Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.