by Tim Etzkorn
It is rare to find a writer that seems so confident in the meaning of their poems and so unconcerned with their poems’ ability to make meaning. And it is rare to read something that immediately feels as if it will be as important one-hundred years from now as it is today. For me, Richard Moore’s Particulars of Place achieves all of the above. Whether he is contemplating present and historic violence or providing meditations on personal tragedy, Moore’s voice is vital, and as he moves between these subjects, a detail comes to the forefront that holds Moore’s writing together: the ability of words to heal and destroy and the capacity of language to process matters social and personal. For Moore, or Particulars of Place‘s speaker at least, it seems like there is nothing more important for survival as a self or as a species as listening to words from the past and engaging in relationship with words in the present. In the text’s opening, the speaker whispers to us the tragedy of repeated violence:
as their own.
History, a carrion discourse of accident
and ignorance […]
History as disambiguation
replication virus of memory
that eats, phage, yes
eats what there is to know.
In footnotes only a library of cruelty
in whispers barely speakable acts
that disabuse the householder from the human house
the human from a shared and animal home.
Moore’s opening lines create an image of a snake eating itself – “Delusional histories / […] claim us / as their own.” Our past claims us and drags us into another iteration of it, and we continue to eat ourselves until we meet self-destruction. Ignorance of this invites history’s “carrion discourse” — a conversation of rot repellant to all, which we unconsciously manifest and pass on like a virus, like a trojan horse that spreads from individual to individual and only gets marked in the quiet footnotes that no one reads.
Using Moore as a lens to examine modern conflict, we can see that discourse serves as a catalyst for violence more than ever before. Now, no wars exist without philosophical justification, and no matter matter how much information sits at our fingertips, we replicate abuses of the past. Moore points out how our unawareness of history – i.e. our ignorance of word spoken and stories told becomes a weapon as we remain ignorant of language’s power.
As Particulars advances, the speaker continues to parse out his perspective on words and their manifest significance. Their power goes beyond providing lessons on our past and thus salvaging our present. They literally have the ability to make our past, present, and future. In “A Family Affair,” the speaker claims,
In a manner of speaking
A life is what is said of it
not star light but the story of
sun-centered stars or so we say
the authenticating angels have been
paid off cannot blow a whistle
are silent as stone angels must be.
In ceremony at the solstice
lay out the ornaments of the years
and say, “This is a world.”
Moore frames the poem with a contingency: “In a manner of speaking.” He is simply attempting to say something, to put things a certain way. Everything that is to come is not fact; it is not inherent truth; it’s an attempt to make sense out of something by way of words. The speaker elucidates, saying, that life is the story we tell: “A life is what is said of it.” It is “not star light,” not something heavenly ordained. It is our story, or rather, the story we tell to make sense of all that happens. Life is the tale of “sun-centered stars.” We make ourselves the stars, the center of the narrative, rather than focusing on the celestial bodies around which we revolve. He teases this out further, going so far as to say that the heavens don’t have a voice. He claims, “authenticating angels […] cannot blow a whistle.” They can’t pass on the truth, revealing how things really are, because they are necessarily silent. Angels are merely stone sculptures outside of Gothic cathedrals made by us to explain the inexplicable. As the speaker remarks, this world is only one of words.
Carrying on Particular’s theme, Moore shows how important language is to meaning by paralleling the poem’s structural disintegration with the speaker’s meditation on his fading acuity. Moore introduces a refrain that falls apart as the poem advances:
Velcro mind stay with me on this trip
Velcro mind stay with me
Move grandly into the gathering of words
and measurements — a reach — hand span —
light speed — pressures that life mountains break seas
from the grand uproar of the first event
in a nondectectable nil of time.
The speaker draws attention to the ability of words to serve as “measurements,” whether that means describing the span of a hand in inches or the infinite space between galaxies in light years. Words operate as a force to not only explain mountains and seas but to also lift them up and break them in fictions so vivid they seem real. The speaker points out that words are the operative force in explaining matters as huge as the origination of time. The speaker simultaneously addresses his own fading mind; his ability to use words falters and the “Velcro mind” that has carried him through his life fades to just “Velcro.”
It is as if that “carrion discourse,” that “replication virus of memory / that eats, phage, yes / eats what there is to know” doesn’t just afflict history; it comes after all of us. The speaker discourses on aging, his fading eyesight, and on his loss of acumen. Perhaps history must necessarily rot away because that is how the human mind works. We get to a point where, on an individual level, words fade into delusion and reality follows suit. In “Access Denied,” the speaker states:
Print accompanies the best of days,
There is no equal to what a page displays
Of fact and fancy, scattered left and right,
Not as a picture of what’s present there
But as a means of making sense of it,
Now access to that world has been denied
The speaker repeats his theme regarding the value of words. They help make sense out of experience, whether it’s through auditory processing or by reading another’s experience. As the speaker loses his vision, he can’t access one of his greatest pleasures – writing and reading. If we apply his personal tragedy to the larger social set up, we better understand Particulars of Place’s emphasis on “delusional histories:” there is no way of making sense of the world without words. Moore’s Particulars of Place beautifully portrays an aging speaker’s relationship with words as well as the world. This is something we will all experience in time. Though, more simply and perhaps more importantly, the text eulogizes words and draws attention to the everlasting value of paying attention to them. We need words to understand our past; we need words to understand ourselves; and without words, we cannot comprehend anything we see.
Tim Etzkorn recently taught EFL in South Korea and presently teaches composition and literature at the University of Wyoming.