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Moon as Muse

(Photo by Paul Hart via Flickr/CC)

 

By Lisa Russ Spaar

Is there a subject more often evoked in poetry than our earth’s own natural satellite?  The earliest poems in a host of languages—Greek, Chinese, Tamil,  Hebrew, Arabic, to name but a few—include lunar references, images, tropes, confessions, curses, and appeals.

Scientists think the cratered mass of cosmic debris includes earth matter sent into orbit along with other planetary stuff in a seminal terrestrial collision. Cycling around our globe, it has been mythologized, romanticized, blamed, worshiped, and charged with symbolism, not only in writings about the moon but also in copious writing about writing about the moon.  As poet Paul Legault puts it in a feature on moon poetry posted at the Academy of American Poets Web site after water was discovered on the moon in 2009, “The relationship between the moon and poetry is about as tempestuous as its relationship with werewolves. If poets stop writing about the moon, the world will probably end.”

What accounts for the appeal?

Patent and ingrained cultural associations aside, there is something primal and arresting about the moon.  By turns an eye, mirror, portal, skull, floodlight, face, mask, sickle, cradle, the moon has a potent hold on us.  For one thing, by absorbing and then reflecting light originating from a distant source, the moon allows us to gaze directly into an elsewhere in a way that would otherwise be unavailable to us.  This contributes to a sense of immensity, sublimity, and mystery. Both fickle and constant in its courses, the moon also makes an ideal site for human projection.

Experts disagree about just how much of a physical and psychological effect the moon actually has on the human body. One argument against the claim that the full moon exacerbates things like psychotic episodes, criminal activity, dog bites, and mating instincts is that these incidents tend to happen at the usual statistical rate of chance. Still, the fact that they happen to occur under a big, blazing spotlight of a moon makes us note the night sky in a way we might not otherwise. Another explanation is that the extra bright moonlight contributes to insomnia, which in turn makes people restless and unbalanced. Nonetheless, the fact that the human body is 75 percent water can make us feel as susceptible as the seas to the moon’s tidal pull.

I have favorite moon poets, contemporary and ancient—Charles Wright, Li Po, Mirabai, Alice Oswald, Sappho—and I could fill pages with my favorite poetic lunar images.  To informally test, however, just how prevalent moon imagery might continue to be, I decided to browse through five spring/summer 2012 issues of literary magazines I had by chance stacked on my desk on the day I sat down to begin this column.  Grazing the pages for moon imagery, I quickly found at least one poem in each of the five journals that makes a reference of one kind or another to the moon; a few  of these moon “fragments,” each excerpted from strong poems that I recommend in their entirety, follow:

 

“Your gorgeous cabeza is cold as a gun’s empty
chamber, a hole that can’t be stuffed with poems
or the half-chewed aspirin of the moon”

–from “Do Not Be Broken by the Day,” by Jennifer Willoughby
Indiana Review
, Summer 2012 (Vol. 34, No. 1)

 

 

“If only I could recall which highway off ramp is yours,
I would empty the moon to deliver its contents to your door.”

–from “Apogee” by Brad Johnson
Hawai’i Review
76,  Spring 2012

 

 

“the ear’s open mouth functionally closed,
especially to a whispered note of moonlight”

–from “On a Lover’s Deafness” by Donna Pucciani
ellipsis . . . :  literature & art
  (Vol. 48, 2012)

 

 

“The nights are longer now
than I remember, the moon

and trees more restless.
The wind knows my reasons.”

–from “Frankie Silver Awaits Execution” by Kerri French
Mid-American Review
(Vol. XXXII, 2012)

 

 

“Your body is a white palette
covering a sacrifice of gills, some moon’s clement
misanthropy . . . ”

–from “On the Seventh Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan” by G. C. Waldrep

 

and, from a poem called “The Moon Clings to the Morning” by Christopher Ankney:

 

“We find ourselves wrapped
around our own earths . . .”

–both from Hayden’s Ferry Review (Spring/Summer 2012, Issue 50).

 

The moon is with us in all seasons, of course, but perhaps because many of us are often outside in the mild nights of summer, we are more aware of its motions and stages in June, July, and August than we might be at other times of the year.  “The Moon was but a Chin of Gold / A night or two ago -,” Emily Dickinson writes in 1863, “And now she turns Her perfect Face / Upon the World below – // Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde – / Her Cheek – a Beryl hewn – / Her Eye unto the Summer Dew / The likest I have known.”  The Japanese poet Lady Sute-jo (1633-1698) asks:

 

Are there
Short-cuts in the sky,
Summer moon?

 

And in a summer poem, “Citronella,” Charles Wright says:

 

Sweet smell of citronella,
beautiful, endless youth.
The book of moonlight has two pages and this one’s the first one.

Forsake me not utterly,
Beato immaculate,
and make me marvelous in your eyes.

 

I’d like to close with a beautiful moon poem by Nathaniel Perry, part of a 13-poem series, Moons for Jane Bell, composed for the poet’s daughter, who is named in the last stanza of “Buck Moon.”  Native Americans in the northern and eastern United States gave names to the full moons (Buck, Flower, Sturgeon, Harvest, among others) as a mnemonic for seasonal changes and activities; each name refers to an associated month.  The Farmer’s Almanac offers a list of these full moon names. The “buck moon” occurs in July and refers to the velvety antlers forming on the heads of young male deer during this month.

The quietly elegant form of this poem—tercets of pentameter with long distance rhymes at lines three and six, nine and 12, and 15 and 18—and Perry’s quietly textured, binding repetitions (some, some, some, light, lightning, quiet, quiet), and particularly of murmurous “m” and susurrant, sibiliant “s” sounds, give the poem the feel of a blessing, a lullaby.  Everything about the poem is hushed, nocturnal, watchful.  The father is keeping vigil.  But he is tempted by a “star or piece / of rock enfolding light” outside—and by his curiosity, and even, or perhaps especially (since the poet repeats the phrase twice), by his own “inner light”—to leave the sleep-wrapped family house and move out into the fully flushed ecstatic open:

 

But outside I would lose this vagrant light
to the field-flushed July moon. I’d be stuck, wide-eyed,

inner light all embarrassingly shining.

 

Because Jane Bell is little, like the “young, undone” bucks, “next season’s deer” asleep in thickets nearby, she must be protected.  “Jane Bell,” the father sings, rhyming the clarion call of her name with the dark secrets of the earth, “Sleep heavy, like the lid on a well.” He stays with her because it is late and because he knows that even as the light lures us with its wonder and beauty, the dark, with its dangers—the dark on which the light depends—is always “calling in its bets.”

 

Buck Moon

 

There’s some kind of something out there, some star or piece
of rock enfolding light that I can see
through the farmhouse dark of the window, even through

the reflection of my face predictably moored
in the middle pane. Maybe it’s my inner
light, or just a lightning bug, stuck, screwed,

permanently lightning. The only way
to know would be to seek it out, put on
my shoes, slide out the door, quiet, quiet,

in the all-dark silent sleeping of the house.
But outside I would lose this vagrant light
to the field-flushed July moon. I’d be stuck, wide-eyed,

inner light all embarrassingly shining.
Somewhere nearby next season’s deer are sleeping.
They’re young, undone. It’s not your season yet

Jane Bell. Sleep heavy, like the lid on a well;
it’s late, but even the smallest lights are calling
to us, and the dark is calling in its bets.

 

 

Copyright © by Nathaniel Perry.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

Nathaniel Perry is the author of Nine Acres (APR/Copper Canyon, 2011), which won the 2011 APR/Honickman First Book Prize.  Recent work is appearing in Kenyon Review Online, Alaska Quarterly Review, Subtropics, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere.  He is the editor of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and lives with his family in rural southside Virginia.

Lisa Russ Spaar is poetry blogger for The Chronicle and an English professor at the University of Virginia.

 

 

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