STANLEY MOSS PRESENTS himself as a social poet, and, like any artist who is to be heard amid the perpetual whirl of public consciousness, he enacts his tragicomedies of the soul by means of an accessible, motley style and various performative techniques: high but plain diction, stock and contemporary references, direct addresses, and transparent allegories. Let the serpent be subtle, Moss seems to say, so long as my lover’s quarrel with the world and its creator is audible and authentic.
In his latest collection, God Breaketh Not All Men’s Hearts Alike (which also lends its title to the “New and Later Collected Poems” of which it is part), the eighty-six-year-old Moss is at his most forthright. “I have no time for ornament,” he says with a sense of urgency that suffuses these late poems, motivated, no doubt, by the imminence of what Moss calls “the No God, Time.” God, for example, is the butt of “Bad Joke,” a caustic anti-war poem informed by the Holocaust, but the layered humor here (“After a difficult illness, in letters to friends I wrote:/ ‘Inside my vitals it was Stalingrad.’/ I could have said ‘Waterloo, all puns intended’”) is soon stripped to naked realism (“[those at Stalingrad] were starved, frozen, gassed,/ shot to death, blown to pieces”). Moss has time for a joke, it seems, only if the joke satirizes itself, rips off its comic mask to reveal the terrible recognition at its center.
This is not to say that Moss is propagandistic or even didactic. He is more of a skeptical entertainer than anything else, like Lear’s fool or “a Yahweh clown” (Moss’s projective epithet for Zero Mostel), finally too intelligent to have a cause other than the creative act itself. Or, in some cases, the procreative act to which it is analogized: “A little fornication rights all wrongs,/ there are no commandments in the Song of Songs,” as Moss puts it in his Byronic “Satyr Songs.” And indeed, Moss’s anti-dogmatic poems are songs to be sung aloud, “ejaculate[d]” by “a unicorn who is not Christ,/ but poetry,” like the psalms and prayers in whose image they are made. From within that sacred tradition, Moss can examine Yahweh’s virtues and vices as well as our own, try them on for size, poke fun at them. He is pleased to costume profanity in the sacred, and the sacred in the profane, and he is pleasing in turn.
In the opening lines of “Two Fishermen,” for instance, an early poem first collected in The Wrong Angel (1966), Moss seems to be setting the stage for a clean-cut didactic allegory: “My father made a synagogue of a boat./ I fish in ghettos, cast towards the lilypads, strike rock and roil the unworried waters.” Perhaps the father is an instructor of sorts, bears some character of God, we think. Perhaps the boat bears some lineament of Noah’s ark: two people who have found grace in the eyes of the Lord, who are mercifully spared the Lord’s destruction of the flesh by the flood. The father is to bequeath the Jewish tradition, his knowledge thereof, and his son is to receive. Then enters the farce: “My father snarls his line, spends half an hour/ unsnarling mine.” So much for our hypotheses. The father is all too human, presumptuous and susceptible to error. And, ironically, it’s “on a bad cast” that the son catches the first fish of the poem. Tradition and knowledge are undermined here by little more than beginner’s luck, or, worse, natural chance, and cosmic allegory is cut down to human size. What’s exemplary about this poem, though, is that it does not shock with its farce as a lesser poem would (the shocking poem nullifies its contract with us to upset expectations), but genuinely surprises us, by encouraging us to misread the contract it proposes only to upset our expectations later by correcting our initial misreading.
But if what the father has to say does not inform how the son should live in the world as it is, “Two Fishermen” asks, do such institutions matter at all to their would-be inheritors? This question pursues Moss for the rest of his career, and also motivates here one of his characteristic costume changes. After the son takes “two hooks through the hand,” he can’t help but think that “hook and gut dangle like a rosary,” that he has “another religion in [his] hand.” So the hooks, at first a symbolic conduit of Jewish tradition and knowledge, are transubstantiated into the nails with which Christ is fixed to the cross. And if the Jewish speaker is ashamed by “this image of crucifixion” and Christian salvation, it is, after all, an image he has dressed himself up in, not so much out of Oedipal reflex as out of fear, a fear of becoming the snarled father, which is more truly, I think, a fear of death.
Moss will go on from here to play the self-negating ascetic (“Give me a death like Buddha’s,” he asks revealingly in the early poem “Prayer”) and, in his later work, the satyr of Greek myth—figures that correspond to what I very roughly think of as Moss’s two major creative periods. First there is the young poet of The Wrong Angel and Skull of Adam (1979), introspective, anxious, desperately spiritual, a Cartesian dualist unsure as to whether “the hand of God/ and the hand of man ever touch,/ even by chance”. It is this doubt that serves as the backdrop against which Moss stages his personal crises of religious identification, erotic love, and mortality. He is terrified by nature’s anarchic growth and waste and violence, by how bodily instinct consumes the bodies in which it operates, the precariousness of the soul, as is exemplified in the last stanza of “Shit,” a kind of anti-psalm:
Most men near death cannot withhold,
they shit on themselves
when what they are
is all out of them:
wind, kindness, cruelty,
all done, left behind,
when they must be changed
and cannot remember
who chose to soil us,
who makes us clean.
At the heart of these early poems, I find (among other things) Moss’s traumatic reading of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with its vision of prodigiously fertile slime, the internalized yet alienable god, performative love, and larger-than-life self-consuming passions—all more dangerous and sublime than the sensitive young poet can bear. And so, in his deliriously ambitious sequence of verse-speeches, “Along the Tiber: A Commentary,” spoken by characters from Shakespeare’s play, Moss revises Shakespeare by contracting his vision. Moss’s Antony and Cleopatra are greatly diminished. His Enobarbus, against Shakespeare’s Antony, declares, “I am a soldier, will not give up my sword for mystery,” presumably the mystery of Cleopatra’s erotic vortex into which Antony is sucked. And “when Antony touches [Cleopatra’s] shoulder,” Moss’s desirous Enobarbus “feel[s] useless flesh about [his] face,” as if desire impeded devalues flesh as the medium of desire. Of course, for Moss-as-ascetic, desire is always impeded, never satisfied, and so flesh is always useless. So the young poet can say absolutely in another poem that “Flesh is a ghost, inarticulate.” But while Moss’s identification of flesh and ghost in this line suggests that the flesh is already dead in that it cannot speak, the identification also anticipates a reversal in his poetics.
If the poet is imaginatively evicted from his body, where is he to live? The maturing Moss answers this question by moving outward, into the civic universe, the body politic, amongst men and women in the world. It is this sociality that characterizes Moss’s second period, spanning (again, roughly) from The Intelligence of Clouds (1989) to his newest collection. His personal crises are absorbed by public subjects: he talks with and about his fellow poets and friends, their deaths, about his international travels, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, paintings by the Old Masters. His art becomes explicitly dialogic.
Moreover, the religious crisis of “Two Fishermen” is largely resolved (or repressed) as Moss reintegrates himself into his most immediate community—the Jewish family of which he is part. “I have come to Jerusalem,” he says in a later poem, “because I have a right to,” and from there he imagines a scene of reunion in which he and his grandmother, his dead mother, and his dead father “spoke of what was new” (just as the poet does in his later poems), and in which Moss is called “only by [his] secret name,” a reference to God’s secret name in the Jewish tradition. Correlatively, as the poet is reintegrated into the world, his style becomes more discursive, more self-explanatory, louder. It might be said, for instance, that “I Have Come to Jerusalem” is more naively allegorical than “Two Fishermen”, in that the poem does not destabilize the meaning of its figure, nor does it ironize its own genre. And as Moss gets louder, his prayers more and more give way to half-jokes and half-prophecies.
So the cloistered ascetic becomes the social satyr, Moss’s personal symbol for “public art,” happy sensuousness and even sensuality, an affirmation of life despite life’s pain. Moss can now make what he earlier calls the archetypal “green, that old anarchy” of natural chaos, into the “paradise” of “A Satyr’s Complaint.” He does not break from tradition so much as he vents asocial tendencies through the creative act (Moss-as-satyr likes to imagine himself in public with an “erect penis”), done in an effort to render tradition bearable again. Following the tragedies of his early period, Moss’s later period might itself be thought of as a kind of tragicomic satyr play.
A part of the pleasure of reading God Breaketh Not All Men’s Hearts Alike is tracing its poet’s maturation and development. The young man who says that “flesh is a ghost” is corrected by his older self: no, the later Moss thinks, flesh is not some impoverished state of being to be negated—it is the common denominator of our humanity, of human society. Indeed, Moss says, “the greatest poem is the human nervous system,” where flesh is reinscribed as spirit. And unlike Byron, whose nihilistic satire reveals the nothingness behind its tragic backdrop, Moss has faith that his satire specifically and his poetry generally reveal the love—of, for, and by the flesh—that is the first cause of this universe and at the universe’s core. “There was never/ a race of Gods at all until love/ stirred the universe into being,” Moss says in the early “The Lesson of the Birds”; that “the world is not all love,” Moss later concedes, is “tragic news,” but also the fountainhead of our capacity for self-creation: “To be human is not human./ We must learn to choose the better part of human.” The last line of this epigram seems self-evident, but it is complicated by the hard-won paradox that precedes it, a paradox that Moss has been writing around over the course of his lifetime in poetry.
And yet, despite his social poetics, Moss is not a widely read American poet. He is instead “American poetry’s best-kept secret” as John Ashbery says. I suspect this is the case for no other reason than that he fell outside the compass of his time’s tastes. Instead of excavating the self, as his contemporaries working in the confessional or Freudian lyric did, or picking up where the New American poets left off, Moss attempted to keep the age-old argument with God relevant, to be a public spokesperson of sorts, a poet of myths and allegories who moved away from subtlety and complexity to archaisms and primitiveness. We would do well to remember that Shakespeare himself likewise made this move in his late romances, as Northrop Frye observes, and that such a move is not to be faulted in and of itself. At his worst Moss is too discursive, too prosaic, so that his symbols lose emotional resonance and act as mere substitutes for thoughts and ideas. Sometimes Moss’s recourse to the tradition of myth and naïve allegory is also superficial or silly. But at his best the poet transcends himself, is “barely a ghost in [his] own poem,” as he puts it, and gives us a tingle of the universal love he sings. And it is for his power to give us this tingle that Moss is, at last, a secret better told than kept.
Joshua Wilson is a student at Harvard College, and a former literary intern at The New Republic.