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Forever Home.

Reviewed by Matthew C. Brennan Indiana State University

Lenard Moore's first two full-length volumes of poetry explore widely different subjects - Forever Home (1992), the poet's familial roots in rural North Carolina; Desert Storm (1993), the war in the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, both books comprise the "sensual truth of locality" - to borrow from Guy Davenport - and express it through the techniques of imagism. Moore's "Author's Note" to the second collection reveals his intention "to paint a picture" in his poems, and Davenport's introduction to the preceding book accurately links Moore's approach to the Realist tradition. But at their best Moore's poems not only depict vivid scenes, they also betray a muted desire for transcendence that is "beyond speech" ("Joining Twilight").

Forever Home engagingly recreates the life of four generations on a family farm through the poet's senses, memory, and imagination. The book's fifty-four autobiographical poems employ an imagistic free verse, and as expected in this mode, they are all less than a page long, many containing fewer than ten lines. Moore's lines are short and turn over quickly and frequently, which suits the poems' impressionistic tone. Further underscoring their immediacy, Moore uses present tense in most of the poems; however, like Williams in his imagistic lyrics, Moore also favors stanzaic structure, which enables the poems to work like snapshots, preserving the past and nurturing the present.

"Ars Poetica" typifies the themes and style of Forever Home:

In these dark woods where fog hangs in leafless trees I hear a whisper in the warm air of midnight while deer stare by the narrow path, yet I go on pacing the woods I loved as a child while the dark world persists, the fog lingers on.

The woods bounding the family farm sustain the poet, connect him to his childhood, but also enable him, among the fog, the deer, and the trees, to face the uncertain future, to "go on pacing . . . while the dark world persists." Moore's clinging to his childhood love of his grandparents' grounds is hardly sentimental, for his authentic imagery admits life's limits: The trees are "leafless," the path is "narrow," and "the fog lingers on." The power of the landscape is that it endures, keeps Moore linked to the past and thereby equips him "to hear a whisper / in the warm air of midnight." Here, he evocatively leaves the significance of the whisper mysterious, suggesting that through this contact with the unseen in the ancestral space the poet can "go on." Hence, while the style is sensuously imagistic, Moore deftly assembles the images so that they gesture beyond their literal impressions.

As "Ars Poetica" comes late in the collection, its full power is felt only if read alongside the earlier poems that have turned the same soil, expressively repeating subjects such as walking the farmstead, telling and listening to stories, planting and plucking collards, watching seasons pass and grandparents pass away. "Summer Work" graphically presents how the poet "suckered tobacco and pulled / weeds," all the while talking, his "boot- worn feet" stamping, "sunk / in the muddy earth." But as in "Ars Poetica" Moore moves in his closing from sheer realism to images not only carefully threaded by sound, but also charged with ambiguous resonance: "I prayed / that the heat would not deepen / while crows flew across the windless sky." Also like "Ars Poetica," "Breaking Ground" enacts a circular pattern, beginning and ending with pictures of "breaking ground." And yet, again, the act of planting near the family farmhouse brings to the speaker's mind thoughts "of ancestors who worked this land," which lead him to "listen hard" - to "voices, finally gone," "ancient trees," "pure mystery."

Similarly, in "Homeplace" - the opening poem - Moore walks the farm thinking of his "great-grandfather / who one time walked these woods"; and though here "the voices of former life / do not speak," the poet wishes to join "their spirits huddling / into themselves," wishes "to grow old and stand without words / in this part of the world," "this fresh green world / which cradles everything into itself." Ultimately, if Moore borrows the techniques of imagism, in his best poems desire colors what his senses present, creating a subjective yearning for what lies out of sight and beyond speech. His manner, then, proves more romantic than realist, and is perhaps best seen by comparing these examples to weaker efforts such as "Miss Julie Mae" and "Cousin Jack," which remain flat and literal, and therefore less effective.

Desert Storm combines 136 haiku into a "sequence" Moore hopes "will be read as one long poem." To the extent Moore creates an organic movement from the first poem, which describes a "September sunrise" and a "Marine going," to the last, in which "back home / soldier listens to birdcalls / marking sunrise," the poet succeeds in shaping the many fragments into a coherent compilation. The haiku form and the almost monolithic sense of locality - the sun-baked desert landscape - further connect the disparate pieces and help, as Moore declares, "to present the images in a precise way, so the reader can participate in the haiku moment itself."

But Moore's ambitious aims are strained when he strings together too many haiku that stay literal. Unlike the haiku of Etheridge Knight and James Emanuel, two African American poets who experimented with Oriental forms but whose haiku build from concrete imagistic settings to metaphorical closure, Moore's haiku often resemble prose-like statements:

young chaplain closing the eyes of a dead soldier

desert afternoon at a field telephone troops lined up

Sunday morning a black GI prays inside his tent

Sometimes, though, these haiku precede or follow more distinctive examples. For instance, the haiku about the soldier praying in his tent shares the page with one that strikingly combines the cleaning of a gun - potentially an agent of death - with an image symbolically analogous:

cleaning his weapon a soldier with the hot sun setting in his eyes

A few other haiku successfully paint pictures but simultaneously, through musical sounds and symbolic images, evoke the mysterious, like the best poems in Forever Home:

in last night's dream a crow lights on a pine bough - he leaves for the Gulf

Artistic gems like this haiku simply overshadow the surrounding literal poems.

The ability of readers to piece Moore's puzzle into a coherent narrative sequence may depend on prior knowledge of the war's events. Clearly, however, Moore's pictures vividly convey the senses' experience of the desert locale, and even if Moore is not the first African American poet to experiment with haiku, his application of the form to the subject of the Gulf War and in a long-poem sequence is novel. If in his next book he returns to the more expansive style of Forever Home, we should expect Lenard Moore to paint many more pictures that evoke "a slow music" that moves "inward" and reaches "into space" ("The Eternal Landscape").
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Author:Brennan, Matthew C.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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