In my years in the Twin Cities arts scene I’ve had the good
fortune & pleasure of getting to know two guys whose active brains are
refreshingly free from artist schtick. I doubt that either even owns a
black turtleneck, and, yes, they each feel, but they also think. Both have
had a long-standing association with the Uptown Poetry Group. One of them Art
Durkee, I’ll address in another essay. The other is Don Moss. Before
I sing Mr. Moss’s praises- both artistic & personal- I shall mention
the obligatory ‘bio/how I met him’ facts. I’ll speak briefly of
Don’s non-poetry projects, essays, & how they tie in to his poetry.
Then I’ll speak at length on some of Don’s better individual poems,
& his masterpiece book-length poem Dominions-
a poem I helped give final name (from the less evocative Virginia) & which, unfortunately, still seeks a publisher.
I first encountered Don in 1993. I believe it was at one of the Saturday afternoon gatherings of the old Ophelia’s Pale Lilies poetry group. Don’s intellect, maturity (vis-à-vis the typical artiste), range of knowledge, & corrosive wit was apparent immediately. Consequently, this made him a poor fit for the OPL crowd- mostly a clan of beginning poets who liked to support each others’ work, & gossip on arts doings locally & nationally. In 1995 I started the UPG & Don was a regular attendee until about early 1999, but still attending 2-4 times a year. This is due to his wintering down in Georgia on Tybee Island, & the fact that poetry has not been his main focus the past few years.
What little I know of Don’s past is this: he’s in his mid-50s, grew up in Virginia, served in the Armed Forces (USN), ran a jazz/pop band for six years, was married for about 2 decades before divorcing, & currently lives with his partner of nearly a decade- Marj Schneider (no relation), & their passel of pets. The past few years of wintering in Dixie have led Don & Marj into a research project on the history of Tybee Island. Don believes this avenue may lead to publication sooner than poetry will. Don also has a series of breakfast stories that is well worth reading. He even queried & did one on me.
Before heading on to Don’s poems I’d like to note one important thing about Don’s writing: both his prose & poetry almost bleed together stylistically. Aside from line breaks it is sometimes impossible to tell which is which. Gertrude Stein was notable in this quirk, as well; however, Don is a much better writer of prose & poetry than Stein ever was.
Don’s poetry is very fluid & musical, yet it has quite a bit of density of image & narrative. Don makes frequent use of conversation in his poems & is very adept at selling the illusion that a lot of the obviously contrived speech is real. In the poem A subsidy for not planting feed corn the speaker is placed in a stock poetic setting- looking at a photo of a dead person- yet the poem could also be set at a wake. Yet, from that we get a marvelous unfolding of the political & archaeological past from the smallest occurrence:
‘one speck of which, magnified enough, carbon dated, would reveal
what part of the second rib of a small extinct omnivore (which once
trailed a receding glacier that had raked this whole county,
eons before fenced lines drew a farm’s argued borders),
the very mammal from which cows and horses evolved,
in fact, the ancestor of all tamed animals, at a time
when they (though then one) fended for themselves (self),
and fended meanly, long before merely turning round with a shout
would halt their playful stampede, but back when they kept coming,
full-bore, with one great animal heart that was not yet torn
off into so many nobodies, into so many merely live stocks’
Another poem that evokes wonder at the mundane is the great poem Soda Fountain. Its title, alone, invokes thoughts of the very best poems of the hit-&-miss Frank O’Hara. 1st the poem, then my comments:
That Mall bridal shop has
lost its lease:
Signage reads: If It's Here It's Remaindered!
I wonder if real shoulders will ever fill
The gown sun-baked pale yellow.
Perhaps it's of acetate, which
I've heard reacts to gamma rays.
Nearby, the Woolworth's soda jerk
Once spun drinks to twice their volume,
And the extra (plus(?) in French) was set
Beside the straw-topped glass, bright canister
Frosting white for all three flavors.
That was when downtown really bustled,
Ladies shopping and all those big black cars.
The windows recorded that like a fixed-lens Kodak,
The countless consultations, the refittings,
The mother's mother's failing to give an inch
(For the bridesmaids contrasting color).
Transactions were entered in Indigo ink. It goes
Without saying that renters and their private
Ceremonies seldom saw the Basilica.
One was to store what was never again worn,
Nor the cake's small top layer
Maneuvering the messy melting ice,
I give way to a flower delivery man,
His chin steadying a large, shrink-wrapped box,
Which so confined his point of view he drops,
And with no time to shout, through an uncovered manhole.
The box, somewhat square, hits the hole and covers it up.
Frantically looking for help, I notice a named street,
I'd always thought an alley, right before me
Between numbered avenues and streets.
This is a classic memory poem- think Proust’s title. Yet look at the entrée into the speaker’s past- look at
the feint of the 1st six lines. Then, all of a sudden- &
not coincidentally after that 1950’s sci-fi catchall of transmogrifying
agents, gamma rays (Cold War?) - we get the memory, some asides, nostalgia
derived from & in opposition to the nominal spur for it all- the
notice of the bridal shop. We then get these three divine lines: ‘One was to store what was never again worn,/Nor the cake's small top
layer/Maneuvering the messy melting ice’. Drink in the sound &
the meaning. What is really being spoken of is memory, events themselves-
the surface of things, etc. Think hard, now, reader- how often has this
very theme been struck in poems? How very explicitly. Yet, here it is
symbolized in a way totally novel. Cake frosting as memory- wonderful!
Then we get this almost silent film moment of a deliveryman’s awful
predicament. What is this- CHANGE!
The last 2½ lines are the classic revelation/discovery. BUT, LOOK HOW ALL
THIS IS CONVEYED! With ubiquity, humor, & marvelous control of image
& sound. Now, I could delve much deeper into the interior of the poem-
but this poem’s greatness is SO
apparent that for me to do so here would signal condescension on my part.
Just cogitate on the points previously made & compare this poem’s
elements to like elements- & more importantly, to its very
tack/approach. This is a poem that follows the classic formula of poetic
narrative & revelation, uses a classic theme; yet in its word choices,
narrative feints, & music, makes the classic things just mentioned classic,
& not clichéd. The difference is all in the level of execution. This
ubiquity of content, approach, & execution makes this a cosmic- &
not generic poem. THIS IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 2 TERMS!
Excellence/greatness is a difference in KIND- not just degree! This poem exemplifies that point superbly! I harp on this because even many excellent poets & critics have failed to GET this point! A smaller, but related, point is that this willingness to dare the classic is far ballsier than the vast overwhelm of ‘experimental’ poems out there. This is truly experimenting- most ‘experimental’ poetry is just reflexive masturbation of dull, often-attempted banalities. This poem is GREAT, in large part, due to its very EXPERIMENTATION, & subsequently successful subversions. Don Moss is a master at this form of subversiveness.
Another example is the great poem 21 Club. I will briefly comment that this marvelous poem is another classic revelation poem. Two protagonists come upon a moment that causes reflection [more accurately refraction] upon their existences. The epigraph, & other accoutrements let us know that these 2 individuals are probably lovers or mates. Stanza 1- what description! ‘Fog, heralded in whole notes, tumbled in/In kingly cotton balls that dabbed air gray,/Then caught on cottages and palms to pack/Against itself in mulls of indigo.’ Then, quoting Proust, the moment, discourse, theorizing ‘secret system of life, invisible, superabundant and profoundly moral,/which their atmosphere holds in solution...’, an asides, the reiteration of the original posit- love, & a wonderfully symbolic end image of memory, exchange between beings [all of us]: ‘[of gulls] Each took and took, and for their giving gave/The lasting fan of all those beating wings.’ This wonderful poem really out-Eliots Eliot. Read this poem, note the structural classicism I noted of the prior shorter poem- then note the very similar subversive techniques that are used in this poem. This is great writing. Period.
Speaking of which, let me turn to Dominions [while unpublished, the poem was completed by 1998]. Simply put, this poem has only two 20th Century rivals in English language book-length great poems: Hart Crane’s The Bridge & John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. What of The Führer Bunker, John Brown’s Body, Conquistador, Maximus, Cantos, Paterson, Briggflats, The Changing Light At Sandover, Flowchart, The People, Yes!, Jeffers’ epopee, etc.? Well, most of the aforementioned are too long or dull [Sandover is an excellent 80 page poem bloated to 500 & Flowchart might best be called Flowfart], Sandburg’s & Jeffers’ poems are really not prototypical book-length poems, Maximus & TFB kept padding themselves & got worse with subsequent editions. The rest are simply not that good. On to Dominions vs. The Bridge & The Dream Songs.
All 3 are multi-part & multi-structured poems. Berryman’s is the most conventional, but being the longest of the 3, its very ability to sustain itself for 385 episodes is amazing- that the 1st 1/5 77 Dream Songs did so was a great enough accomplishment. Although shorter, I think Dominions is better, if slightly. There, too, we follow a single hero- The Boy! We scope in & out of this individual’s life. There is less dead weight than in Berryman’s poem, yet we get less scope (albeit slightly). But the narrative structure of Dominions is closer to The Bridge. That Moss’s poem is nearly the same length- perhaps a little longer- makes for good comparison. Yet the rhetoric & thrusts of the poems are different. The Bridge’s sustained intensity & compression are only now, 7 decades after its publication, getting their full due. Because Crane covers more in less ground, I give it the nod. However, Dominions’ different approaches make argument very tempting.
The whole of Moss’s poem is bracketed by the Boy’s visit to an ailing friend. For me, this is the poem’s most obvious & glaring flaw. It puts the whole thing into a neat basket with a bow, is hackneyed, & ultimately superfluous because this is the only intrusion this entity makes into the poem, and I’m still encouraging its omission. Nonetheless, the rest of the poem is so good as to reduce that bitch to little more than a quibble- although a good one!
There are several long sections in the poem where the grown Boy is traveling with his mate & reminiscing- some take place on the North Shore of Lake Superior, some on the way to Georgia. These are mostly in de facto blank verse. The bulk of the poem- its meat- is unrhymed sonnets with end couplets. We follow the Boy’s path through the 60’s mostly, as well as his stints as a cub high school newspaper reporter, precocious advice columnist, trips to kith, & assorted other cultural markers, which litter his path. I will now excerpt some of the better parts. This sonnet comes after the boy has misreported on a basketball game:
To the Editor: What is Innuendo?
What is innuendo?
Its not like I said that Ricky and you know
Who, I mean, her real name, did anything.
Don’t fans want to know why a player’s off?
And as for my lack of game details,
I mentioned Ricky’s best shot, and that Coach
Riggins never put me in. Should I have
Said the Florals’ coach kept his first string on
So that they’d humiliate the Rebels?
Can great sports writing come from just watching Note
the relevance to art itself. This next excerpt is a gem of a snatch of
Southern life. Note the smooth resolution the couplet provides, even taken
from the whole poem’s context:
p.26 Late summer, three black bootleggers rolled
Others play? I know you’ve had us report
On things that happened somewhere else--
Quakes in California and someone’s dying--
But writing like that’s as easy as lying.
Drivers Training Cont.
Their muscled Olds, more from fright than curve,
On the road just above the pond. The boy’d
Run to help, and held some vein in the neck
Of the one whose face had torn, pressing, releasing
A little, as the trooper directed,
Who ordered a dog for the two who’d fled
Into the pines.
“Your back plate’s danglin’ by just one screw,
And, shit, they gun it, like this was Carolina.
It’s still bad, that old law ‘ginst running shine,
So don’t go figure this one here’ll say thanks.”
Note the relevance to art itself. This next excerpt is a gem of a snatch of Southern life. Note the smooth resolution the couplet provides, even taken from the whole poem’s context:
Late summer, three black bootleggers rolled
The boy eased his grip, then pressed back again,
Giving his gift of life and five-to-ten.
Note the evocation of the callowness of youth, along with the Boy’s wit & insight:
Dear Astronaut Armstrong,
The sky intrigues me
Too, since, at the farm, I see what was
Always seen, which is not to say nothing’s new--
Last night there was moon and stars and lightning.
I’ve lost track of what the Russians might be
Scheming to keep leading the Race to Space.
I write this year since we’ve stayed within
The atmosphere, and you might spare the time,
At least to read a letter, if not write.
I’m thrilled you’ve circled part of planet Earth.
With more and longer trips the Race will race,
With ticker tape successes. But I’ll stay
Here, I think, to coax more from this space,
Kept plain, except these curtains trimmed with lace.
Here, the Boy’s journalism comes under scrutiny by his teachers:
To the Editor: Is it Necessary
Is it necessary
That we always say “He said” after
Quoting from a source, unless, and it
Is rare, the He is a She? I just wondered
If that rules true for real journalism
Or if it’s just for us beginners?
Case in point: you marked off for my writing
“... I want/to tell the truth,” Ruby said,
“And I can’t/ tell it here....”
I felt that ‘R.
Said’ paused and broke the thought interestingly.
You said this brought in innuendo, Below,
the truth comes out- the Boy made up his reportage on the basketball game.
This series of related- but separated sonnets makes up one of the more
powerful philosophic thrusts of the whole poem.
p.54 Mr. Jackson,
And thus fictionalized what had been,
For me, acceptable reportage.
Must every phrase defend itself in court?
To the Editor: I Apologize
For saying the Florals stomped the Rebels.
The truth is, I couldn’t stay the whole game.
Below, the truth comes out- the Boy made up his reportage on the basketball game. This series of related- but separated sonnets makes up one of the more powerful philosophic thrusts of the whole poem.
All right, I’ll come clean, since word spreads
This school like a new flu; I didn’t quite go
To the game. The truth is, I don’t like to watch,
And we’re hardly ever ahead enough
for Coach Riggins to let second-stringers play.
I’m not much, just better than Hank or Will.
Those two and most of the bench get put in
More than I. I should probably write how
Coaches sometime stifle the growth of some
Young, promising players just to be mean.
I can write just as well of things unseen.
This next pair of sonnets has a dazzling love poem, then a follow-up to my aforementioned powerful philosophic thrust:
Letter: Forwarding Expired
For one brief year you held me to sonnets.
Had I not fought their caging with house cat
Persistence, I’d have filled more with more.
At times they yoked me like an ancient bow tie,
Long stocks of sound wound and wound and tied.
Even bound by this boa, a few lines released
Exquisitely nested teasings of sense
Via your favored fording, innuendo.
Their bits of news jibed on a plinth of play,
Like your mom’s Russian egg, her Faberge,
Which once held one more perfect, jeweled orb,
That was spared the master’s quick steel rod
To be lost on the proletariat,
As on me, but for a dim glow you lit.
Permit this boy to voice appreciation,
If it contain puns, that they not take back
What thanks they bestow. But if they should
Misbehave, say, mint proverbial coin
For the ear, that they not profit from that,
But transfer, forthwith, their full liquidity.
Were this to find you in Carolina,
Send first a card signed only “Ellen”
Or “E,” to free M.E. to once more be . . .
Who cares what careless counters misconstrue,
Or, for that matter, don’t catch in gill nets
Sized to wrest gasping admission that ME is . . .
fact or in essence?
Consider the source, his adolescence.
I have quoted generously from the work to entice you to want to see this work in print. This last long excerption I will give in toto. It’s simply GREAT sustained narrative poetry. Forget all I told you about the book-length poem- this poem works exceptionally well as an individual poem. Each stanza builds on the preceding stanza, as does each line. The last stanza heightens this to a memorable end. As the end of the whole poem (hear me Don?) this would be one of the all-time great endings. Even bracketed by the end poem to an ailing friend, it is tour-de-force. Its end sums up the whole poem- Dominions & this section unto itself. The poem would therefore climax in its last section, stanza, line & word! Here it is:
Flying to Conserve Fuel
Still south of Duluth’s hard right east,
Near Kost, Greely, or Pokagama,
M. stops her machine to B-side the book
She keeps keeping to herself. I tell
How I used to fly here in an hour-something:
“Burning inheritance in Piper
Tomahawk and Cherokee low-wingers,
At best, weak on aerobatics, their airfoil
The only fickle net before the ground.”
As I think, “Should I pull over to write
That down?” M decides by pressing a button
For better writing. I give her sleeve a tug
And say, “I put that too . . . cleverly?”
“Fickle Net?” M says over an earful.
“Leave your editor in Minnesota?”
“Oh, I think she must have tagged along.”
I pause, then pick up my theme: “Flight rules grounded
Pilots like me for passing into clouds.
“Lacking radar to see who’s in them,
I’d fly over them, to oxygen
Deprivation, up to 14,000 feet,
Where the checkerboard of roads and RR tracks
Begins to generalize, to recede
To models of motion to anywhere.”
M says, “Make that clearer and less clever.”
I say, “How can I with the math I know?”
M says, “What of that childhood you lived?”
The Mazda managed Duluth and her sister-
City, and further on US 2,
Poplar and Brule, before we stop to limber,
Eat the lunch we’d packed, let Windy Sue go.
Back at the Park Service cement table,
We talk map and Michigan and no place
Yet to stay; but, we agreed, it didn’t matter
How close we came to Copper Harbor,
Silver City or Ontonagon would do.
Passing through many more lake-faring towns,
A voice reads me Bernstein’s closing obit.
“Did I mention how air disperses
At altitude? A mis-wagged aileron
Could bring a stall, a spin, a steep plunge
And, with skill, panicked recovery.
Distracted, M says, “That, too, one might
Fit to words, if made personal; but air,
Does it vary from one place to another?”
“Those Bible-belt AMs we tuned for
From Virginia to Georgia refused to
Dilute to please mere laws of physics.
Wouldn’t God hold air, the medium of prayer,
In some sense whole, from here up to heaven?”
I said, but realized, only to myself
And, I guess, God. But wait at least Windy
Was earphone-free and might have heard,
Were her cracked eyes not glazed, her head heavy.
Indian summer in Minnesota
Recurs all year in ever-open casinos.
Silver City feels closed this September day,
Though summer lake-view prices still hold.
The owner, nice enough, says, “Try up the road,”
Which we do, the greatest Great Lake near now,
Glinting through 200 feet of wooded
Private property. No need to ask
The rate of the hidden, rental houses.
Bernstein rewound; I start another life,
This one, Toulouse-Lautrec -- pages of eye-
Art transmitting to ear; the artist,
As tireless a self-promoter as Lenny.
Bernstein’s polyrhythms slyly transpose
Into “...orgies of loud, dirty color.”
Wordsworth had the boy emit the man,
But books’ multi-vectoring progress
In the order read, sideways and back ways.
We talk map at dinner at a non-chain
In Ontonagon. Apparent options:
1) Backtrack to Silver, or 2) Turn south.
The waitress, conferring with four white-haired
Patrons, says, “Rt. 38 to Mass City,
If you need somewhere to stay overnight.”
I think, but don’t say, “A city called Mass?
If we need somewhere?” We fold maps and head south,
And soon reach a sign brighter than its town:
ADVENTURE MOTEL & CAFE (someone’s coined
That perfect name again)--TRUCKERS WELCOME
A shrill lap-breed announces my knock:
“Yes, we’ve rooms. Cash or personal check?”
We unpack, then hurry on foot to confirm
The breed of car we passed just as we turned:
60M PAMPERED MILES--CERTIFIED!!
Best Offer Over 4M WINS
The man draws the chains wood-chewing tight,
Gaining advantage with a length of pipe
While the quivering rig atomizes
No. 2 diesel fuel industry
Into Upper Peninsula air.
Now in the cab, he adjusts a mirror
To view the places he soon will have passed.
Now he smears a smudge clear with a cloth,
This too a good habit for safety,
Though I’d like to think for reasons more
Confounding. Now he does something hidden
By the cab--is the guy that literal,
Or’s he playing with his biographer,
Whom he backs from to prolong the scene?
Thanks for the help, the huge empty box,
Let’s shift that rig forward into Wednesday,
All those sawn logs. I don’t make this up,
My equating this son-aged man with my dad.
* * * * * * *
Morning’s lesson and pop quiz nearly passed
And duly noted, M. says, “In two weeks
My school reconvenes. Will yours ever
End?” I say, “Just this last trip,” lying,
“Then nothing remains but a quick write up.”
“I’m glad the Mazda is willing to see this
Through,” M says. “But this car’s from up here,
Not from the South,” I say. “I mean,” she says,
You, your doing this, seeing this through.”
Outside of Copper Harbor, a bear
Chances a side road, and is eaten
By the woods before WS wakes to worry.
I pull over, and stare through widely
Spaced scrub growth: no bear, no sign of it.
A van swings wider than needed to pass.
As we turn back for Houghton, my book speaks
Of Lautrec’s aptitude for alcohol,
For syphilis, of signing his fate to art.
M. had warned me of road’s miscibility
With the spoken word, how like liquids,
They instantly flow as one. Lautrec
And that bear: I felt its creative conceit
In that perfect, practiced disappearance
Into woods too thinned to conceal. I worry
That now within it ran other things human,
Other compulsions no less self-absorbing.
Exposed, I felt their nostrum mix in me.
Stalwart against all but its fuel gauge
Needle, the car made Houghton before dark,
Then, dimming, as far as Baraga,
And its lake-facing CARLA’S RESTMOTEL
That sensibly required plastic or cash.
A woman, unloading a full-sized Ford,
Assures us the place is “A Jewel,
Not gone to pot like those south of here.
My daughter and husband are fixing it up.”
Rising early to walk along the lake,
Its Greatness had risen once more in fog,
Filling all space, it seemed, except our room.
After reaching the shore of wash-up and stone,
We instead choose the road’s wide shoulder,
With facing traffic’s building glows, rushings
Past, and disappearances--the sound
Preceding and outlasting the light.
The furies of fog stirrings keep us calm.
I say, “When the world mostly drove Fords,
And Chevies, we’d name them by their nearing
Headlights--make, model and year. The object
Was to say before car shape joined the light.”
M says, sounds as easy as watching TV.”
I say, “Most nights, a lot better than that,
And not something you’d care to do alone.”
“But how often did cars pass your old farm road?”
“What,” I say, “Oh, no, the long stretches of time.
“We’d guess what would pass by next, its MPH
(We guessed that too).” M says, “You spent evenings
Sitting naming passing cars.” I say,
“A useful skill during our fathers’ war,
Paying attention to whatever moves.”
“That theme of motion again,” M says.
“How’d you do competing with the other boys?”
“It was mostly against Larry,” I say,
“And he always knew before I could guess.”
“His house had no power—no lights, no TV.”
We waited for something big in the fog,
Felt, as much as heard, growing brighter.
A first, then second rattling log truck passed.
M says, “So you had black friends back then?”
“No, lots of white folks I knew lived that way too.
I was just better off, just not so much
As not to know and play with those with less,
And not so little as not to know that then.”
Little cars I couldn’t name whiffed past us.
But now we were headed back, and taillights
Are, unless cracked, uniformly red.
“Don’t you still wonder about approaching cars?”
“I admit I do, but from the inside out.
Objective Larry began with their light,
And matched their form, their luminosity.”
“You mean, you wondered first who was driving?”
“Yes,” I said, “who it was if not me.”
Let me end rather abruptly. I do so because I have been getting seriously annoyed that- yet again- a manifest piece of great art is plying languor rather than appreciation. In short, potential editors & publishers who read this essay- contact Don Moss, publish his poetry, especially Dominions, & kick off at least a few of the poseurs you have on your waiting lists. DO IT!
Return to Bylines