Marianne Moore

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Marriage

This institution,
perhaps one should say enterprise
out of respect for which
one says one need not change one’s mind
about a thing one has believed in,
requiring public promises
of one’s intention
to fulfill a private obligation:
I wonder what Adam and Eve
think of it by this time,
this firegilt steel
alive with goldenness;
how bright it shows —
“of circular traditions and impostures,
committing many spoils,”
requiring all one’s criminal ingenuity
to avoid!
Psychology which explains everything
explains nothing
and we are still in doubt.
Eve: beautiful woman —
I have seen her
when she was so handsome
she gave me a start,
able to write simultaneously
in three languages —
English, German and French
and talk in the meantime;
equally positive in demanding a commotion
and in stipulating quiet:
“I should like to be alone;”
to which the visitor replies,
“I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?”
Below the incandescent stars
below the incandescent fruit,
the strange experience of beauty;
its existence is too much;
it tears one to pieces
and each fresh wave of consciousness
is poison.
“See her, see her in this common world,”
the central flaw
in that first crystal-fine experiment,
this amalgamation which can never be more
than an interesting possibility,
describing it
as “that strange paradise
unlike flesh, gold, or stately buildings,
the choicest piece of my life:
the heart rising
in its estate of peace
as a boat rises
with the rising of the water;”
constrained in speaking of the serpent —
that shed snakeskin in the history of politeness
not to be returned to again —
that invaluable accident
exonerating Adam.
And he has beauty also;
it’s distressing — the O thou
to whom, from whom,
without whom nothing — Adam;
“something feline,
something colubrine” — how true!
a crouching mythological monster
in that Persian miniature of emerald mines,
raw silk — ivory white, snow white,
oyster white and six others —
that paddock full of leopards and giraffes —
long lemonyellow bodies
sown with trapezoids of blue.
Alive with words,
vibrating like a cymbal
touched before it has been struck,
he has prophesied correctly —
the industrious waterfall,
“the speedy stream
which violently bears all before it,
at one time silent as the air
and now as powerful as the wind.”
“Treading chasms
on the uncertain footing of a spear,”
forgetting that there is in woman
a quality of mind
which is an instinctive manifestation
is unsafe,
he goes on speaking
in a formal, customary strain
of “past states,” the present state,
seals, promises,
the evil one suffered,
the good one enjoys,
hell, heaven,
everything convenient
to promote one’s joy.”
There is in him a state of mind
by force of which,
perceiving what it was not
intended that he should,
“he experiences a solemn joy
in seeing that he has become an idol.”
Plagued by the nightingale
in the new leaves,
with its silence —
not its silence but its silences,
he says of it:
“It clothes me with a shirt of fire.”
“He dares not clap his hands
to make it go on
lest it should fly off;
if he does nothing, it will sleep;
if he cries out, it will not understand.”
Unnerved by the nightingale
and dazzled by the apple,
impelled by “the illusion of a fire
effectual to extinguish fire,”
compared with which
the shining of the earth
is but deformity — a fire
“as high as deep as bright as broad
as long as life itself,”
he stumbles over marriage,
“a very trivial object indeed”
to have destroyed the attitude
in which he stood —
the ease of the philosopher
unfathered by a woman.
Unhelpful Hymen!
“a kind of overgrown cupid”
reduced to insignificance
by the mechanical advertising
parading as involuntary comment,
by that experiment of Adam’s
with ways out but no way in —
the ritual of marriage,
augmenting all its lavishness;
its fiddle-head ferns,
lotus flowers, opuntias, white dromedaries,
its hippopotamus —
nose and mouth combined
in one magnificent hopper,
“the crested screamer —
that huge bird almost a lizard,”
its snake and the potent apple.
He tells us
that “for love
that will gaze an eagle blind,
that is like a Hercules
climbing the trees
in the garden of the Hesperides,
from forty-five to seventy
is the best age,”
commending it
as a fine art, as an experiment,
a duty or as merely recreation.
One must not call him ruffian
nor friction a calamity —
the fight to be affectionate:
“no truth can be fully known
until it has been tried
by the tooth of disputation.”
The blue panther with black eyes,
the basalt panther with blue eyes,
entirely graceful —
one must give them the path —
the black obsidian Diana
who “darkeneth her countenance
as a bear doth,
causing her husband to sigh,”
the spiked hand
that has an affection for one
and proves it to the bone,
impatient to assure you
that impatience is the mark of independence
not of bondage.
“Married people often look that way” —
“seldom and cold, up and down,
mixed and malarial
with a good day and bad.”
“When do we feed?”
We occidentals are so unemotional,
we quarrel as we feed;
one’s self is quite lost,
the irony preserved
in “the Ahasuerus tête à tête banquet”
with its “good monster, lead the way,”
with little laughter
and munificence of humor
in that quixotic atmosphere of frankness
in which “Four o’clock does not exist
but at five o’clock
the ladies in their imperious humility
are ready to receive you”;
in which experience attests
that men have power
and sometimes one is made to feel it.
He says, “what monarch would not blush
to have a wife
with hair like a shaving-brush?
The fact of woman
is not `the sound of the flute
but every poison.'”
She says, “`Men are monopolists
of stars, garters, buttons
and other shining baubles’ —
unfit to be the guardians
of another person’s happiness.”
He says, “These mummies
must be handled carefully —
`the crumbs from a lion’s meal,
a couple of shins and the bit of an ear’;
turn to the letter M
and you will find
that `a wife is a coffin,’
that severe object
with the pleasing geometry
stipulating space and not people,
refusing to be buried
and uniquely disappointing,
revengefully wrought in the attitude
of an adoring child
to a distinguished parent.”
She says, “This butterfly,
this waterfly, this nomad
that has `proposed
to settle on my hand for life.’ —
What can one do with it?
There must have been more time
in Shakespeare’s day
to sit and watch a play.
You know so many artists are fools.”
He says, “You know so many fools
who are not artists.”
The fact forgot
that “some have merely rights
while some have obligations,”
he loves himself so much,
he can permit himself
no rival in that love.
She loves herself so much,
she cannot see herself enough —
a statuette of ivory on ivory,
the logical last touch
to an expansive splendor
earned as wages for work done:
one is not rich but poor
when one can always seem so right.
What can one do for them —
these savages
condemned to disaffect
all those who are not visionaries
alert to undertake the silly task
of making people noble?
This model of petrine fidelity
who “leaves her peaceful husband
only because she has seen enough of him” —
that orator reminding you,
“I am yours to command.”
“Everything to do with love is mystery;
it is more than a day’s work
to investigate this science.”
One sees that it is rare —
that striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity,
which in cycloid inclusiveness
has dwarfed the demonstration
of Columbus with the egg —
a triumph of simplicity —
that charitive Euroclydon
of frightening disinterestedness
which the world hates,
admitting:

“I am such a cow,
if I had a sorrow,
I should feel it a long time;
I am not one of those
who have a great sorrow
in the morning
and a great joy at noon;”
which says: “I have encountered it
among those unpretentious
protegés of wisdom,
where seeming to parade
as the debater and the Roman,
the statesmanship
of an archaic Daniel Webster
persists to their simplicity of temper
as the essence of the matter:

`Liberty and union
now and forever;’

the book on the writing-table;
the hand in the breast-pocket.”

On Mt. Rainier, Washington, Marianne Moore and her brother John Warner Moore are third and second from the right (1922)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Octopus

 

of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies “in grandeur and in mass”
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
pseudo-podia
made of glass that will bend–a much needed invention–
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
feet thick,
of unimagined delicacy.
“Picking periwinkles from the cracks”
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward “spider fashion
on its arms” misleading like lace;
its “ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.”
The fir-trees, in “the magnitude of their root systems,”
rise aloof from these maneuvers “creepy to behold,”
austere specimens of our American royal families,
“each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with the dark energy of life,”
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather;
“stained transversely by iron where the water drips down,”
recognized by its plants and its animals.
Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches
“hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight”–
met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs
“conformed to an edge like clipped cypress
as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company”;
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror–
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human
foot,
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
“merging in irregular patches in the middle of the lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes
of ripples.”
What spot could have merits of equal importance
for bears, elks, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks?
Pre-empted by their ancestors,
this is the property of the exacting porcupine,
and of the rat “slipping along to its burrow in the swamp
or pausing on high ground to smell the heather”;
of “thoughtful beavers
making drains which seem the work of careful men with shovels,”
and of the bears inspecting unexpectedly
ant-hills and berry-bushes.
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz,
their den in somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of “blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if the whole quarries had been dynamited.”
And farther up, in a stag-at-bay position
as a scintillating fragment of these terrible stalagmites,
stands the goat,
its eye fixed on the waterfall which never seems to fall–
an endless skein swayed by the wind,
immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks.
A special antelope
acclimated to “grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts
which make you wonder why you came,”
it stands it ground
on cliffs the color of the clouds, of petrified white vapor–
black feet, eyes, nose, and horns, engraved on dazzling ice-fields,
the ermine body on the crystal peak;
the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene,
dyeing them white–
upon this antique pedestal,
“a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,”
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama’s
till an explosion blew it off.
Distinguished by a beauty
of which “the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an impostor,”
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures:
those who “have lived in hotels
but who now live in camps–who prefer to”;
the mountain guide evolving from the trapper,
“in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,
wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees”;
“the nine-striped chipmunk
running with unmammal-like agility along a log”;
the water ouzel
with “its passion for rapids and high-pressured falls,”
building under the arch of some tiny Niagara;
the white-tailed ptarmigan “in winter solid white,
feeding on heather-bells and alpine buckwheat”;
and the eleven eagles of the west,
“fond of the spring fragrance and the winter colors,”
used to the unegoistic action of the glaciers
and “several hours of frost every midsummer night.”
“They make a nice appearance, don’t they,”
happy see nothing?
Perched on treacherous lava and pumice–
those unadjusted chimney-pots and cleavers
which stipulate “names and addresses of persons to notify
in case of disaster”–
they hear the roar of ice and supervise the water
winding slowly through the cliffs,
the road “climbing like the thread
which forms the groove around a snail-shell,
doubling back and forth until where snow begins, it ends.”
No “deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness” is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where “when you hear the best wild music of the forest
it is sure to be a marmot,”
the victim on some slight observatory,
of “a struggle between curiosity and caution,”
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with glass eyes,
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice-water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear’s ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting
rigid leaves
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.

“Like happy souls in Hell,” enjoying mental difficulties,
the Greeks
amused themselves with delicate behavior
because it was “so noble and fair”;
not practised in adapting their intelligence
to eagle-traps and snow-shoes,
to alpenstocks and other toys contrived by those
“alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures.”
Bows, arrows, oars, and paddles, for which trees provide the
wood,
in new countries more eloquent than elsewhere–
augmenting the assertion that, essentially humane,
“the forest affords wood for dwellings and by its beauty
stimulates the moral vigor of its citizens.”
The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
“complexities which still will be complexities
as long as the world lasts”;
ascribing what we clumsily call happiness,
to “an accident or a quality,
a spiritual substance or the soul itself,
an act, a disposition, or a habit,
or a habit infused, to which the soul has been persuaded,
or something distinct from a habit, a power”–
such power as Adam had and we are still devoid of.
“Emotionally sensitive, their hearts were hard”;
their wisdom was remote
from that of these odd oracles of cool official sarcasm,
upon this game preserve
where “guns, nets, seines, traps, and explosives,
hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are prohibited;
disobedient persons being summarily removed
and not allowed to return without permission in writing.”
It is self-evident
that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;
that one must do as one is told
and eat rice, prunes, dates, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness–
like Henry James “damned by the public for decorum”;
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out–a public out of sympathy
with neatness.

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
“Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,”
it receives one under winds that “tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.”
Is “tree” the word for these things
“flat on the ground like vines”?
some “bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted grooves
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape”
from the hard mountain “planned by ice and polished by the     wind”–
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak–
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
“with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.”

–Marianne Moore

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