The Idea of the Garden
Michael S. Moos
The Ashland Poetry Press, 2018: 87 pp.
This review appeared in the 32nd edition of The Briar Cliff Review.
In this extraordinary collection of poems, we join the poet on solitary night walks by the river, encountering stunning natural imagery and rhythms of syntax that tendril out like a map of the poet’s mental perambulations. These poems are saturated with the longing to connect with nature, the awareness of mortality, and the grief of being left behind by a loved one. When Moos writes “sometimes there is the feeling of someone walking by my side,” he is perhaps speaking of this person. Yet we readers also walk beside him, and this fact counteracts the dominant sense of solitude. Moos forms a bond between reader and poet out of our shared humanity and common destiny.
Befitting the title of the collection, the human mind is very busy in Moos’s world, and not always happily. The intellect seeks signs, cyphers, and answers to codes in nature, tries to read the “braille of … isolation,” and is “consumed in … endless human calculations.” The mind is always “rehearsing its wild imaginings” and lost in the “Lenten thistles” of thought. Much of this mental energy is expended on studying the “blueprints of memory” and regret, a source of pain. Even the memory of joy is “blistering.” “How long must you pick over that bone pile?” the poet asks.
Moos’s engagement with the past embraces not only a personal history but also the primordial origins of our species, the fossils of snail shells embedded in the limestone of river rocks, the “ancient glaciers,” something “old and silent.” The cave art of prehistoric humanity is imprinted on personal memory: “sounds of the ancient past drift through the halls of your heart, / leaving murals and carvings in the breathing flesh.” There is a longing to dispense with the “ghosts of history, / cutting with their dull knife” and to “lie stripped under the brilliant, cold stars.”
In search of this nakedness, the poet seeks a wildness and innocence discoverable in nature, in the “translucent porcelain of the wild mind.” Moos enters imaginatively into all kinds of creatures, from the shrew underground, to the blue-winged teal, to migrating birds, and even to the lovemaking worms in their “tantric meditations.” The consciousness of our difference from other species and the desire to bridge that gap is everywhere. In a state of preverbal innocence, “Nameless birds” flit about a preconscious “river that has no memory,”
saying nothing but yes, yes, the light, the dark,
filling them without end! You want to be reborn,
made clean, lifted above, somehow not subject to the silence
of the earth, once a garden.
There is a need to find purity in the “cleansing wind,” to break free of the body, and to become “something simpler you cannot see.”
But, interposed between the speaker and such radical innocence is an Eden-like “locked door.” Moos is always listening for the crack that would suggest an opening into a new existence, a “door out of pain,” a seed emerging, a bird hatching from its shell. The poet wants to still the “impatient wheel of awareness” and enter a simpler, prelapsarian state.
This longing for healing from the wounds of grief, “the jewel of pain,” is prominent in the cycle of nineteen “Boneset Poems” at the end of the collection, each beginning with the line “Between the blooming boneset and the dying garden.” Boneset is a wildflower once used for healing and setting bones. Its wildness makes it a counter to the domesticated “dying garden,” and each of these poems is set in the liminal space “between” the two. In these poems there is both radical doubt and the hope of healing. One poem ends, “And what if there are no stars? Only the light’s memory of them.” Yet the very next poem cries, “The door is open, / wild animals are roaming / and stars have been tearing a hole in the darkness!”
These past-haunted and regret-hunted poems focus on loneliness but end up being all about connection. Though tragically divorced from nature, we humans engage in feats of imagination that join us to the world. “You can picture the world the way you want it to be,” says Moos, as “the fog comes up from the river and surrounds [his] body like a soul.” He looks down on the frozen river and imagines what it would be like to be an ice floe: “To float like that, not caring if you will dissolve. / To think of whales and sharks and stingrays swimming through you, / as if your body were the soul of everything!”
Hope lies ultimately in such imaginative acts, in The Idea of the Garden if not the garden itself. In the final poem, “Waiting for Sunlight,” the moon is only a “blind eye,” and the wind feeds “the nothing without, and the nothing within,” yet the poet urges the thrush to “Sing your winged life into the wind and blue sky!” Perhaps courage is to be found in the act of singing itself … or the act of poetry. Thus, Moos brings us full circle to the epigraph of his collection, taken from the ancient Chinese Shih Ching: “The body may be silent, powerless, / yet there are words, you / have words.”