O Body Swayed by Berwyn Moore, Cherry Grove Collections, 2009. $18
Reviewed by Sherry Chandler
for David Lehman
MS stood for Mary Shelley, or magnetic storm,
for mackerel sky in Mississippi, or malfeasance
at Microsoft. The mother ship sank. Mother
Superior scoffed. The mystery shopper slunk
among suede mules and mauve sheets. Megastars
slung mud. Miscreants smudged murals. Such
mindless moosetwits, as if a maelstrom of slurs
and mean tones mangled Mahler’s 6th symphony.
Metrosexuals mimic Mona Lisa’s smile, moan
at muscle shirts. Students muddle manuscripts.
Sorry for Ms. M’s multiple sclerosis. Miniskirts
seduce money-spinners as mothers spit, mongrels
snarl, mendicants swoon, men shrug. So mind your
manky spirit. Mourn your shoddy moral sense.
When the electrical system that is our brain malfunctions, the effect is disorienting. Diseases of the central nervous system can destroy identity itself. This potential loss of self is the subject of the title poem in Berwyn Moore’s second collection of poetry, O Body Swayed. In many ways it is the theme of the whole collection.
“O Body Swayed” takes an epigraph from Yeats: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” It tells the story of Moore’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and is dedicated to David Citino, who died of complications of that disease. It is a long poem (3 pages) with lines averaging 9 to 10 syllables, underlain by what seems a rough iambic tendency. The poem takes its time in establishing the symptoms: “a sizzling torch, / a fox with a burning tail” that runs “the nerve length of my / left leg and back again.” It places her in a doctor’s waiting room where “we are / a hodgepodge of misplaced and broken parts.” We go into the consultation with her and see the films, the brain filled with white patches “like feathers, / I say, but he says no, they’re plaques.” From diagnosis, the poem focuses back into the waiting room where patients sit with the disasters of their diseases—the blindness, the vertigo, the tingling, fizzing, itching of over-excited nerves—“and all / of them so weary, more tired than afraid.”
They have not lost their other selves. See her
running the 10K, her legs in tempo
with her breathing, and that holy instant
when every limb, airborne, seems weightless.
See him nuzzling his son’s cheek and planting
cabbage. See her clambering to the ridge
where bellflowers bloom and mountain goats graze,
where she tugs a tuft of fur from a bush,
a keepsake she doesn’t yet know the importance
of. See how they dance and sway—
a brightening glance—displacing the air
around them, their hands and feet obeying.
Moore is not often a rhyming poet, so I find this stanza with its chiming and rhyming on the long graceful vowel particularly moving (in both senses of the word). The poem ends, as it must, on an uncertainty: “O body swayed, how can we know —” And of course, we cannot know; it is the dilemma of these diseases, masterfully captured in this poem.
The fulcrum on which O Body Swayed balances is a ten-poem bestiary: “An Argument with Semonides on His ‘Types of Women.’” Semonides was a Greek poet of the 7th Century BCE who stereotyped women, according to the endnote, as “a filthy hog, a fussy and annoying dog, a stubborn mule,” etc. These poems aim to reclaim the identities of the animals and, through them, of women. So the pig is shown to us as intelligent and clean, the mule becomes the sure-footed donkey Christ chose for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The poems are short and show us a whimsical side to Moore’s vision. But I am not certain what their function is at the center of this book, unless it is to provide an interlude between the first and second acts of a much darker play.
The two main acts are made up of personal lyrics in a variety of styles: rhymed and unrhymed sonnets, ekphrastics, and elegies. These are poems of grief, of love, of motherhood. Poems of disease and of dis-ease. Though the play can also be playful. In the poem “MS” for example
MS stood for Mary Shelley, or magnetic storm,
for mackerel sky in Mississippi . . .
For, in fact, a whole sonnet-length list of MS phrases, hidden in the middle of which is “Ms. M’s multiple sclerosis.” It’s play with a slightly bitter taste, like dark chocolate.
Moore is handy with an image, but she does not write of disease metaphorically. Her narratives are straightforward, compelling, and sometimes clinical, as perhaps befits a doctor’s daughter who has done hospital work. She is familiar with that vocabulary. She is fond, however, of the surreality of the dream landscape. In an interview with Elizabeth Glixman at Eclectica Magazine, Moore says:
my poems sometimes blend literal and actual experiences with those from dreams....I believe we can change how those experiences—particularly the traumatic ones—influence who we become....that is probably a primary function of art—to provide a “safe” way to feel something otherwise risky or to rock us out of our comfort zones.
Any device can be dulled by overuse. Donald Hall has said, “Surrealism can become as formulaic as pastoral elegy.” Moore’s dreamscapes, however, are more like visions. They do not disrupt narrative, and she uses them to strong effect in several of these poems. In “Bearings,” the pregnant daughter of a difficult mother (who has made soup of “raw meat and fish”) joins a “parade of fed-up daughters” trudging up a mountain. Sight of a grizzly turns back all but our intrepid persona, who climbs on into the dark, then takes shelter under a ledge where she has a vision of the bear that stirs the child in her womb for the first time.
. . . and I know
it’s this I was admonished for, this story
of the bear: such fierce possession, how it
sends us away, then pulls us back to bad
soup and a hard chair, famished, forgiving.
Thus the persona has circled back through the vision to the mother and is become the mother. “Bearings,” with its circular form and its vision quest, is one of the strangest and strongest in a collection of strong poems.
n the Glixman interview, Moore says she is not one who feels she is a better person for having a debilitating illness. “I was just fine before the MS and didn’t need it to help me ‘see the light.’” O Body Swayed is not a book about redemption through disease. It is not poetry as therapy. The collection is more subtle than that. Nevertheless MS is now part of Moore’s identity and she does not flinch from that fact. From it, she has used her honed craft and keen intelligence to reclaim her selfhood. She has given us a collection of poems about ways in which the body betrays us and teaches us and transforms us. We are not selves trapped in a body. We are of the body and we cannot tell the dancer from the dance.
Sherry Chandler has just completed a collection of persona and formal poems in the voices of women who featured in the history of her home state, Kentucky, and is looking for a publisher. Look for her work in Kestrel, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Soundzine. Chandler lived in Chicago for six years during the 70s during which time she is sorry to say she never once traveled over into Wisconsin. She is, however, a Facebook friend of former WI poet laureate Marilyn Taylor.