Julie L. Moore: Review by Judith H. Montgomery

Julie L. Moore, Full Worm Moon (Cascade Books/Wipf and Stock Publishers)

Life More Rare, More Raw: Julie L. Moore’s Full Worm Moon

Full Worm Moon, Julie L. Moore’s fourth collection, invites us on a compelling path through storm and quake, injury and healing, in poems that glimmer like cut jewels, their light and beauty shivered through with pain reflected from each edged facet.  As her decades-long marriage breaks apart in betrayal, violence, and indifference, Moore guides us into a landscape wrecked by images of earthquake to a hard-won reconstruction of a “singular” life and hope. We journey from interior and confining landscapes of home and abbey, outward into nature and the past, then to challenging questions of her sustaining faith, of human nature, of hope and death, and ultimately to a new “singular’ life.  Deeply connected to the natural world, she illuminates her trajectory with ancient names for the cycle of moon-seasons and with close observation of the natural world, its predators and prey, its seeding, ripening, and dying back to ground, lit by the possibilities of resurrection.

In the first section (Full Thunder Moon), her opening poem alerts us to disruption and danger in its literal form: the title, “Loose Stone,” drops the reader into the indented first line.  (As so often in this book, the poetic form echoes tone and subject.)  The poem is riddled with words of abandonment and isolation:  “empty rooms,” “left behind,” “cleared out.”  At this moment of unease, “. . . everything feels disturbed, / treacherous.”  “Yesterday,” the dog (usually a comforting presence) stood whining on the stairs, a signal that something is awry.  “She almost let the Lab go on, / savoring the company // of her misery,” as fears crept down “the gritty corridors / of their long marriage.”

Although “the husband confess[es] to his wife / he told another woman she was / beautiful” (“Full Wolf Moon”), no immediate break takes place, even as betrayal increases.  The poet struggles to comfort her husband in nightmare, to hold on to the marriage made with vows of eternal commitment.  But as seasons progress, the shocks continue:  in “The Ring,” the husband casually tosses the wedding ring into a box “with pennies, tie clips, & slips / of paper,” the detritus of this world, while the poet sees him living “in another universe” where the other woman has “eclipsed” the wife, a deliberately chosen word in this book keyed to movements of the moon.

While Moore confronts us with poems reporting on dire crack and slippage, she also woos us with lyric, language, and image.  In “Bow Echo” the lines stagger side to side, like the fierce wind that titles the poem.  The pear tree bows and breaks before the force of storm:

Manic & maniacal, the wind’s crow-

bar pried limbs from the trunk.

peeled off bark, exposing everything.   

A birch tree, uprooted, is “prostrate on the ground, / like one spouse pleading // with the other not to leave.”  The two trees, which once “shar[ed] air from another life,” are individually broken, and broken from each other.  Even while the poet attempts a distance in science—“The weatherman says . . . ,” it is her images that convey close emotion in crisply brilliant lines.  Everything is too close, including the physical presence of her abusive husband, “pushing / through doors, plowing into her, his hands / threshing the phone // from her fingers / trying to dial 9-1-1” (“Barley Moon”).

Relinquishing this marriage is made more difficult by the poet’s lifelong faith:  she holds sacred their vows. She also struggles with the belief that she has done something wrong, that it is her failing: “my faults, my faults, my grievous faults” (“Compline”) recited in a retreat to a Benedictine abbey, after she has desperately slapped the husband for his betrayal and for his “serrated words,” a terrible wounding for this poet whose attention to words is paramount.

Loss of love and commitment are cast as loss of equilibrium, a plunge into the poet’s world, suddenly disarrayed.  While she seeks solace in poems keyed to significant points in the Christian year and liturgy, she also calls out the unmoving universe: “As the first [rain]drops finally fall, she realizes how indifferent they are / to whether her marriage lasted two years or twenty-seven. // . . .This storm doesn’t give a rip” (“Full Thunder Moon”).  When she uproots her husband’s rose bushes, she grimly acknowledges “Everything has to go.”  “She lets the sun scold her, /  . . . lets all of it, the whole fucking force / of his question, What do you mean I disregard you?,” her diction signaling the violence of the force that has blown her life apart, and her  search for some form of respite from what she calls “your furious mess” (“I never met a flower that yelled at me”).  To regain equilibrium, she must embrace “this lone life,” one she never foresaw.

Aftershock, the middle section of the book, spirals outward through reverberate after catastrophe.  These poems move from the confines of house and abbey, into the past, seeking to excavate meaning from choices she has made, events to which she has been witness.  Considering past wounding—injury scarred over, hidden until now—she seeks what message might lie in pain, even as she acknowledges that answers are not easily turned up: “no matter your longing / for answered prayer” (“Full Worm Moon”), “begging for a word of explanation” (“Mailbox”).

This questioning introduces the thread that winds through the book: after that greatest disequilibrium—death—what?  In “Strawberry Moon,” she keeps company at the bedside of a close, cancer-stricken friend, mourning even while they talk of “how grief now invaded / like vines, twisting in our throats, / as she told me she’d almost lost / hope, those last words // I ever heard her speak . . . .”  Moore’s empathetic compass expands further in “No Heaven” where she contemplates the violences done by humans within the wider world, alternating stanzas of sorrow and anger at injury and destruction to both women and men in India, Nigeria, and here at home, with refrains from an old Stephen Foster song “Oh, hard times, come again no more.” (I wished for notes at the back, which would enrich a number of these potent poems).

Seeking balance, the poet turns her lens on her much-loved natural world, in a welter of intimately observed detail.  But we traverse no sentimental lyric walk through the woods: she lays plain before us the spider’s killer instinct as well as the potential of her own (“Orb Weaver”) and the apparent impervious self-satisfaction in birds’ predator/prey relationship (“Cooper’s Hawks”).  Beneath it all, she offers us the “soft / cellular breath [of nature],” its elemental renewal and refreshment, in “There is No Violence Here,” before she turns us to human acts that threaten the natural world of which we are a part.  She calls up as witness the broken-horned trophy from a deer hunt (“Moon When Horns are Broken Off”), then the “culling of bison” in which the sorrowing instincts of the herd lead it to expose itself more fully to a fusillade of shots (“Easy Prey”).    

Only from this remove, in such acts, can she contemplate the echoes of that violent breakup of her marriage. And only now is she prepared to consider her newly single life, with the poem “Present” and its double meaning in the month of December. Walking out at evening into town, she welcomes the “luminaries,” candles lit within containers along the street. Separate, she observes others as they gather together, while she herself shifts toward self-sufficiency and self-regard, rejecting “loneliness” and “sadness” as words for her divorced condition, and recognizing instead her “singularity”: the condition of being single in a world utterly moved from is foundation of security and assumption. Singularity: a word that also means “unique, distinctive.”

Aftershock’s last poems echo with intimations of song: “So tell me: What body / whole or broken, // doesn’t have the soul of that song / swelling in its breast” (“Nest in a Winter Tree).”  And, when, as often in these pages, she considers works of art, she summons up Thoreau’s song of solitude and Monet’s determination to continue his art, artist who “will practice on his pale canvas / anything but resignation”  (“In Which the Magpie Resurrects the Voice of Henry David Thoreau”).  Once coiled in protection against injury, now she opens into a widening future, unfurls into questions of beauty and resurrection.

Section three, This Is the Landscape Left, opens with a poem that promises transition, “Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear.” In summer, a deceived cardinal pecked futilely at her car mirror, perceiving threat: “(so certain of its instincts) / to beak and claw the glass,” a cool parallel to her own frantic months as her long marriage shattered. The fall moon she now views, by contrast, “doesn’t seem deceived. / It has the gift of distance. . .”—a distance she seeks. The moon “gleam[s]” in the neighbor’s pond, an “alabaster surface” into which she would dip her hand, bringing away a promising gift: “so when I leave, / light will drip from my fingertips.”

In succeeding poems, Moore’s soundwork and lyric impulse continue to conjure promise out of ruin.  In “Ode to a Pumpkin Patch Discovered by a Trail,” she celebrates the way rot and abandonment (“your forlorn seeds that survived / last year’s flesh”) give rise to fertile beauty:

. . . Your oblong orbs,

your world of worlds spinning

your cells on your axis, your pulp

plump with promise to the teeth

that bit into you & left their marks . . . “

as new vine and fruit will appear “from the wave of some enchanted hand.” This sense of a welcome magic in regeneration appears again in “Hope,” as she replants her mother’s excavated iris bulbs, “rough & robust & ugly,” in her own garden, awaiting spring’s summons.

Life returns as well in a series of poems inviting us to learn deeply: “Come with me, sister scientist,” she says as she contemplates flowers in a garden (“Hesperis Matronalis”). The poet’s identity as mother, teacher, and observer reemerges as she listens to her son’s piano lessons or watches him play baseball, reports with humor of her own ridiculously satisfying recitation of rejected poems to a pasture of cows, and copes with her daughter’s departure for college.  “I’m tired of negotiating the boundaries for beauty” she cries in “Piano Lesson.” “What if the beautiful day is over?” And over carries still more weight: there’s death, the end that reminds us we are each subject to accident that ends or compromises a life: “Your death is a long way off. You’re banking on it. This is the hope you / sleep with” (“Certainty”).   

And yet: she has invited us to continue with her on a quest for healing that insists the beautiful day is not over.  Despite the chilling inch of snow that “eclips[es] daffodils and tulips, their budding / genius,” (“Blood Moon”) she locates beauty in what might be viewed as disaster:

. . . Cherry blossoms wear

white gowns now, shivering

as they somehow—is it possible?—

become more beautiful, . . .”

This poem’s last lines offer a third way, a life and beauty not previously imagined: the  blossoms “. . . move into a third space // hospitable for another life / more rare, more raw.”

In that new rare, raw life, she leads us through poems of questions and possibilities, leaving us in the last poem (“Three Questions”), with a challenge to our own lives, tumbled and disrupted in our own ways:  in the full thrust and spring of life in spring and summer, do we dare “to covet anything / your neighbor may have?” In fall baring down to winter, will we be content with the safety of the warm enclosed car, when we might plunge into the beauty and rigor of landscape huddled before snow? And last, “Will you savor the age-old scent/of the now-&-not-yet . . . // as you take each successive step?”

Scarred, yet healing, she invites us to continue the journey into the “now-&-not-yet,” the miraculous world of beauty and recovery, of vivid life all around us. Calling herself, she  calls us, too, to enter fully into this rare life, where Dylan Thomas’ green fuse lights the dark (“After all green already / pulses through everything”), where God might speak, and where we are offered the promise of fulfillment, promise that faith and the cycle of exquisite life hold out to her, to “join in, do what we were made to do” (“Full Flower Moon”).  This book of beautiful image and rare, raw wisdom offers us a way through the ruptured landscape of a life, of life itself. These poems bear rereading for their deeply thoughtful witness to injury and healing, to breakage and to beauty, to faith in indomitable spirit.

Judith H. Montgomery’s poems appear in Prairie Schooner, Cave Wall, Rattle, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Passion, received the 2000 Oregon Book Award for Poetry; full-lengths books Red Jess (2006) and Litany for Wound and Bloom (2018) followed. Her prize-winning medical narrative chapbook is Mercy (2019). Montgomery holds a PhD in American Literature from Syracuse University.

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