Harmonia by John Moessner
Stephen F. Austin State University Press
Harmonia, John Moessner’s debut collection of poems published this month by Stephen F. Austin State University Press, is a book suffused with death and grieving. The primary cause for much of this grief is the passing of the author’s father-in-law from lung cancer. Since loss figures prominently in many books of poetry, new and old, this information is hardly surprising. And yet what Moessner accomplishes over the course of more than forty elegies and laments is simultaneously touching and fascinating.
The book’s opening poem, “Suitcase,” depicts a world bifurcated by suffering: “We course between two homes: one we live in, / one where your dad is dying.” Here, as so often in this collection, Moessner presents a world at odds with itself, one where the pressures of life-as-usual clash with those of grief. Dying is not the main subject here. Rather, the subject is the ways that death affects the living. The poem continues:
and our clothes spill out wrinkled and stinking,
shirtsleeves like half-gobbled worms.
Like the fish that swallowed Jonah.
The pivot from a sonorous description of the unpacking of dirty clothes to an Old Testament allusion surprised me at first. And yet, looking back, one can see the poet quietly preparing his readers for this leap—not just in the depiction of the sleeves as partially devoured, but in the mention of “three days,” which, along with marking the length of a weekend (counting from Friday night), is also the amount of time Jonah was purported to have been lodged in the belly of that biblical fish. This is one of Moessner’s abiding poetic gifts: to delight the mind of the reader in real time as well as retrospectively. “Suitcase” also introduces the theme of severing that will recur throughout the book, one apparent not only in the double life of its characters, but in the action of their suitcase’s zipper being opened and closed each week like a mouth—or a wound.
Throughout Harmonia Moessner employs various figures of speech to both mitigate and enrich the often-painful subjects of his poems. “Angle of Repose,” the longest and most ambitious piece of the collection, is a case in point. Comprised of nine numbered sections that are further broken into three uneven chunks spread out across the book, this sequence takes its name and central ideas from a geological article on slope stability, quoting that text in two separate epigraphs. Moessner utilizes the language of landscape—forest and mountain, riverbed and cave—to help confront death and its aftermath. The results are quietly dazzling, as in this passage from the poem’s third section:
The foothill is not finished
forming, the loose boulders and scree fall prey to gravity,
each loss contributes to its shape over a lifetime.
We walked along a path in Arkansas and saw the hanging shelves
of rock walls, hidden streams dripping, licking the stones
with their secret wet mouths. The trees had been changing
for a month. It was four months since your father passed.
You wept in the quiet car ride, three hours from Kansas City.
An underground stream finds daylight and emerges.
Does water evaporate underground?
There were slow cool drafts through the underside of the cliff.
Here, interspersed with the details of human grieving, Moessner allows the landscape to help sing and interpret the scene, the effect being that of an extended metaphor attempting to bridge the gap between two adjacent yet still separate worlds. The reader, too, is trusted to play a part in this mending by means of recognition, with words like “gravity,” “dripping,” and “evaporate” all serving as potential points of entry. Such writing can appear effortless; after all, our own minds often work this way, marrying the landscape we traverse to both our present thoughts and our memories. Meanwhile, for the poet, the potential for failure is great, as it is very easy to either make the connections between subject and landscape overdetermined or to make them so slight that they are missed entirely. That Moessner can hit the mark between these pitfalls so often is deeply impressive.
Impressive, too, is the variety of approaches this collection takes. Ekphrasis, for example, is another method used to expand Harmonia’s lexicon of loss. Works by Caravaggio, Corot, Rodin, Titian, and others all serve as subjects for poems. My favorite of these is “Ribera’s The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence,” a sonnet dedicated to the poet’s father-in-law (also named Lawrence), which I can’t help but quote in its entirety:
Black wood and blacker smoke, the fullness
of bearded men and a woman mourning beneath
ash and a cloak cut from oxen hide, through
all this, Lawrence’s face shines like the fire’s
heart, his palms darkened by charred ground.
We lingered, speechless, in front of this scene,
letting our wives go on to the next gallery.
This was six months before we knew about your body,
how tar had taken root in your lungs.
How could you breathe with those thick masses,
like felted wool or thunderheads? We saw Lawrence,
gasping for room to breathe, drawn into the carbon
cloud to burn. But, first, the supplication,
opening wide his bright chest.
There is much to admire in this poem, especially the way that the fate of St. Lawrence as depicted in the painting acts as both a foreshadowing and a corollary to the other Lawrence’s terminal illness. Through this echo, an emotional gravity is achieved, but without the threat of sentimentality that often spoils such elegies. This poem also offers a glimpse at an aspect present in much of Moessner’s work–and which I find inviting: that of the poem’s speaker as a quiet companion to suffering. This contrasts with the kind of boastful witnessing, reminiscent of Whitman’s “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” that pervades certain contemporary confessional poems. Perhaps in Moessner’s poems it is simply a function of the speaker’s role, as his involvement often comes second to the act of supporting someone else more directly affected by grief. Whatever the case, the voice of these poems is imbued with an attentive humility, a speech full of listening.
And, of course, listening is crucial to the making of music–which leads me to some final thoughts concerning the collection’s title. First, Harmonia axyridis is the Latin name of the Asian lady beetle, an insect which gets its own eponymous poem in this book. It is a startling miniature that in only nine brief lines somehow envisions a beetle’s lifeless carapace as both “a quiet porcelain grave” and “an old woman asking / to move her bed so she could look out the window” without seeming either contrived or sappy. Harmonia is also the Greek goddess of harmony and concord. All of which is to say that in another poet’s hands Harmonia might have served as an ironizing influence, since so much contained in this book concerns the absence of what its title would seem to profess: the making of easy music, a pleasing merger of voices. But poignancy rather than irony is what Moessner delivers, showing time and again how harmony can arise from the singing of dissonant things, how a wincing beauty issues from the most painful moments of life. For seventy-six striking pages, Harmonia enacts what the speaker of its incisive lyric, “Seam Ripper,” commands: “Run / yourself along the edge of grief, // sever before you mend.” Having done my best to obey, I urge you to do so, too.