Rereading Berwyn Moore’s new book, winner of the 2018 John Ciardi Prize from BkMk Press, I kept thinking of the opening sentence of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Man Carrying Thing”—“The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully”—since every poem in Sweet Herbaceous Miracle demonstrates the truth of Steven’s dictum. Each one shows how wisdom arises when one resists intelligence until the imagination has had its say. Moore brings wit, verbal music, metaphorical richness, and fiercely accurate diction to bear on sensory observation, never using her poems to say “Look how smart I am!” despite their inclusion of deep readings, introspection, and often fraught experiences.
Because such aesthetic modesty seems rare, the pleasure here is keen. Take, for example, the deceptively straightforward “Breath Sounds,” a narrative in which the poem’s speaker—a respiratory therapist in a North Carolina hospital—wheels “the electronic nebulizer down / to the ward,” where “poor kids slub blankets / sticky with Jell-O, their parents / forty miles away curing tobacco.” Not only is the word slub surprising—it’s a synonym for twist; fibers of silk or wool get slubbed in preparation for spinning—it’s perfect, given the respiratory raveling and unraveling inside every patient’s chest. The rhyme of Jell-0 and tobacco holds the children’s intense and delicate sweetness in tension with their parents’ relentless labor.
Built of free-verse couplets (a structure many of the other poems share), “Breath Sounds” balances the speaker’s technical skill with her sorrow, as well as her patients’ physical fragility with their quiet courage: Ivy, who “sleeps through breakfast, / spit bubbles swelling with each/wheezy breath”; Rudy, “oblivious / to the IV in his scalp”; and especially Cora, the girl whose plucky suffering comes to dominate the poem, her “laughter mucked with mucus” from the cystic fibrosis slowly killing her. The speaker witnesses, comforts, and keeps working amidst the ward’s fatal ironies, listening “to every sigh, pant, gasp, / and wheeze, every cough sputtering with life.”
If I had the space, I’d detail Moore’s lush reinvention of selections from John Gerard’s 1633 Generall Historie of Plantes; the fun she has in “Dirty Talk: A Marriage Poem” (which rhymes borborygmic with tympanic to render the “froth of penne and pesto” and other tunes of digestion); the seemingly natural (but obviously well-studied) ease with which she navigates the sonnet’s artifice in “House of Sclerosis” and “Life Goals”; the passionate, alert perception that drenches the many poems celebrating herbs and flowers; and the book’s final piece, a cento (a poem that arranges lines taken from other writers) that makes a Berwyn Moore poem out of lines lifted from writers as alien to one another as Amiri Baraka, W. H. Auden, Bill Knott, Elizabeth Bishop, and Mark Strand.
Though Moore’s first two books, O Body Swayed and Dissolution of Ghosts are filled with fine poems, Sweet Herbaceous Miracle outdoes them both. I can’t wait to read this strong poet’s next book and the ones after that.
John Repp’s most recent collection of poetry is Cold-Running Current, available from Alice Greene & Co. Broadstone Books will soon publish a volume of selected and new poems: The Soul of Rock & Roll: Poems Acoustic, Electric, & Remixed, 1980-2020.
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