Love At First Read
by Toni Van Dusen
(first printed in CALYX, 2010 – reprinted with permission)
PHOTOGRAPH WITH GIRLS: POEMS, Nancy Carol Moody. Traprock Books, 66 pages, $15 paper.
There are many reasons to buy and read Nancy Moody’s PHOTOGRAPH WITH GIRLS. The cover photo is a wonder—four girls (Moody’s mother among them) lying on a beach, bare-toed and laughing (the inspiration for the title poem). There are poems in traditional forms and at least one poem in a form of Moody’s own invention (“Roy’s Five and Dime”). The third little poem in the series “Three Poems” that begins the book sliced me open with these words:
Belovèd, nothing we could do here in this room,
on the soft of this flat and white elevation,
is so urgent as your cheekbones radiating moonlight,
your breath rising humid and transmutable. Please
don’t rouse while I warm my hands on the lamp
of your body. I want to study your contours
in this dark—me blind, you Braille.
The use of the almost Biblically old-fashioned Belovèd is risky and strikes the perfect tone for this delicate, yet powerful lyric. The rich language is pulled from the far corners of our lexicon—from rouse to raditating and transmutable.
Deliciously chewy language is a hallmark of Moody’s work. Listen to this description of a nest full of baby birds in “Nesting”: Mornings at sunup, the nest / is a tumult of appetite / and squawk.
That tumult of appetite informs this book: an intense desire for the lover as well as desire simply to be alive in this world. Moody’s passion is obvious in poems addressed to the belovèd, of course, but equally in an elegiac poem about an old dog (“Want”), and to city-bound nature, as in “First Mowing”: …the lawn’s / luminous fronds, dauntless stalks / succulent from immeasurable rain. / The holy mud they thrive in…. / How it stains, / oh the green glorious stain.This lush, unabashed language hearkens back to Hopkins and Whitman.
Moody is never afraid to step out of herself. In “The Subject Validates the Photograph,” the persona of Emily Dickinson emerges to confess to, no, to claim, a life quite different than the chaste one so often ascribed to her: Suitors were plentiful in my youth. / Tyrants and pirates—boarding the vessel, / fumbling for plunder. Later, though / only the one. The one was enough. This poem is both unique yet similar to Dickinson’s own. Here Moody’s Emily remembers a love affair that gave rise to a storm of poetry:
….Alfred and I
waging our own demonstrations of war
night upon night on kindled sheets,
daybreaks on blankets under sightless
skies, old Amherst never
once the wiser. The poems came—
the poems came—
To her credit, Moody does not attempt to mimic Dickinson’s capitalized nouns and clipped cadences. The tone is nineteenth century conversational, at times even a bit gossipy—describing friend Susan’s dreadful / mess with Austin, and, shall I say, / his sultry whore? My brother— / such a fool. It’s the way of men.
Moody is also unafraid to poke at difficult issues (especially women’s issues) with her stick. She gives voice to a murdered child in “Thirty Years Later: JonBènet Has Her Say.” The poem artfully, devastatingly exposes the rot at the heart of children’s beauty pageantry and the parents who deliver their daughters up to it: I will confess: I dreamed the spotlight—/ the illumined attention my one understanding / of the meaning of love.
In the sestina “Egyptair 990: Sestina for the 217,” Moody describes the horrifying crash and its aftermath. The first line is chilling: The plane’s dive was so steep Mohamed Gamal that for a small / moment Nama Mossad, the passengers would have been weightless. The names of some sixty dead are dropped into the poem’s lines as if engraved on a granite wall, and I can imagine two readers performing it, one intoning the names while the other reads the poem that surrounds the names.
“Commemoration: September 11, 2006” is Moody’s homage to the survivors of the September 11, 2001, attack, those who lost family and friends and, by extension, all of us.
In Pennsylvania a man
has rocked five years on his porch.
He will not rise to see
the long-scarred meadow.
Sixty months beyond
the five-sided building,
a star’s perfect center,
a woman still feels
her office walls crumble.
Two hundred sixty weeks:
the photos on the fences
have flecked into dust.
Eighteen hundred twenty-six days:
you who watched birds
soar from tower windows
know you were mistaken.
I can’t end this review without mentioning Moody’s humor—sardonic, ironic, but utterly good-hearted—that shines from all but the darkest pages of this book. My favorite, “March Madness,” describes a conversation between the poet and a friend, upon reading a newspaper item about a female high school basketball star:
My friend says, “You know
her father doesn’t have to worry
about the boys. That girl won’t fit
in the back seat of a car.”
I remind: “In small towns
they drive pick-ups.
PHOTOGRAPH WITH GIRLS is a book you will love at first read and continue to delight in again and again. Thanks to Traprock for publishing these trenchant, beautifully crafted poems.