Marianne Moore’s The Fish

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Moore was very stoical and firm in life, but if she held out the joy she displays in poetry in some physical craft she would have made a marvelous and playful dancer.

The Fish

wade
through black jade.
       Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
       adjusting the ash-heaps;
              opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
       The barnacles which encrust the side
       of the wave, cannot hide
              there for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun
       glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
       into the crevices—
              in and out, illuminating

the
turquoise sea
       of bodies. The water drives a wedge
       of iron through the iron edge
              of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

pink
rice-grains, ink-
       bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
       lilies, and submarine
              toadstools, slide each on the other.

All
external
       marks of abuse are present on this
       defiant edifice—
              all the physical features of
              
ac-
cident—lack
       of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
       hatchet strokes, these things stand
              out on it; the chasm-side is

dead.
Repeated
       evidence has proved that it can live
       on what can not revive
              its youth. The sea grows old in it.

Marianne Moore’s Elephants

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Elephants
by Marianne Moore

Uplifted and waved till immobilized
wistaria-like, the opposing opposed
mouse-gray twined proboscises’ trunk formed by two
trunks, fights itself to a spiraled inter-nosed

deadlock of dyke-enforced massiveness. It’s a
knock-down drag-out fight that asks no quarter? Just
a pastime, as when the trunk rains on itself
the pool it siphoned up; or when–since each must

provide his forty-pound bough dinner–he broke
the leafy branches. These templars of Tooth,
these matched intensities, take master care of
master tools. One, sleeping with the calm of youth,

at full length in the half-dry sun-flecked stream-bed,
rests his hunting-horn-curled trunk on shallowed stone.
The sloping hollow of the sleeper’s body
cradles the gently breathing eminence’s prone

mahout, asleep like a lifeless six-foot
frog, so feather light the elephant’s stiff
ear’s unconscious of the crossed feet’s weight. And the
defenseless human thing sleeps as if

incised with hard wrinkles, embossed with wide ears,
invincibly tusked, made safe by magic hairs!
As if, as if, it is all ifs; we are at
much unease. But magic’s masterpiece is theirs–

Houdini’s serenity quelling his fears.
Elephant-ear-witnesses-to-be of hymns
and glorias, these ministrants all gray or
gray with white on legs or trunk, are a pilgrims’

pattern of revery not reverence–a
religious procession without any priests,
the centuries-old carefullest unrehearsed
play. Blessed by Buddha’s Tooth, the obedient beasts

themselves as toothed temples blessing the street, see
the white elephant carrying the cushion that
carries the casket that carries the Tooth.
Amenable to what, matched with him, are gnat

trustees, he does not step on them as the white-
canopied blue-cushioned Tooth is augustly
and slowly returned to the shrine. Though white is
the color of worship and of mourning, he

is not here to worship and he is too wise
to mourn–a life prisoner but reconciled.
With trunk tucked up compactly–the elephant’s
sign of defeat–he resisted, but is the child

of reason now. His straight trunk seems to say: when
what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived.
As loss could not ever alter Socrates’
tranquillity, equanimity’s contrived

by the elephant. With the Socrates of
animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose
tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures
his gravity. His held-up fore-leg for use

as a stair, to be climbed or descended with
the aid of his ear, expounds the brotherhood
of creatures to man the encroacher, by the
small word with the dot, meaning know–the verb bud.

These knowers “arouse the feeling that they are
allied to man” and can change roles with their trustees.
Hardship makes the soldier; then teachableness
makes him the philosopher–as Socrates,

prudently testing the suspicious thing, knew
the wisest is he who’s not sure that he knows.
Who rides on a tiger can never dismount;
asleep on an elephant, that is repose.

Marianne Moore’s A Grave

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Marianne Moore’s poem, “A Grave,” is a virtuosic display of restless and discursive analysis, making the activity and soul of the sea a metaphor for death; so appropriate for her description of a vast, complex force consuming all things, itself a non-entity, taking all other things as naive objects themselves, never known, never remembered.

Yale professor Langdon Hammer mentions the opening of this poem as a possible reference to the Friedrich painting below, Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog.  He spoke of an incident in Moore’s life when her mother and she stood at the shore, and Marianne’s mother quelled the girl’s irritation by responding with a line Moore uses here, “it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing.”  (Note: Hammer has a course on Modernist poetry that I enjoyed to no end and should not be missed.  You can see it free here.)

Friedrich Wanderer Sea

Hammer points out that A Graveyard is made up of two stanzas, with no line break, of 11 lines each.  Each of these two stanzas begin with a 7 syllable line.  Some may suggest that this is an anti-Christian poem, protesting against the dominance of Christian theology, and the person of Christ, as being at the center of the universe.  Is Christ lifted on the cross merely the habit of man to put himself at the center of all things, staring into the Sublime?  Perhaps that is an undercurrent of the poem.  Perhaps these stanzas employ Biblical numerology (11 disciples, 7 for the day of eternal life) to pose an emotional counter-argument suggesting that all are subsumed by a death which erases even their bones into a void.