Night Singer: the collected poems of Frank D. Moore Reviewed by Chris Myers

These Men of Constant Sorrow
Kentucky might be the only state in the Union where it is always autumn. Why Kentucky poets are seen as regionalists, I will never know. The people of the backcountry have staying power. Some say that their language, captured in songs hundreds of years old, is among the oldest expressions of English in the Americas. Into this tall grass, we lay the poems of Frank Moore.
Frank D. Moore was born in Traveller’s Rest, Kentucky, hardly more than a post office address, in 1936 and died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2005. This haunting collection, drawn from a chapbook and unpublished verse, was shepherded to print by his friend, Carol Rainey, with the help of several of Mr. Moore’s colleagues. Traveller’s Rest lives today in the spelling of the 1700s. It is located in Owsley County. As Joyce Wilson remembers in This Was Yesterday: A Romantic History of Owsley County, “Men, women, boys and girls—each possessing the hardy individualism and sterling qualities necessary to a pioneer spirit—crossed the rugged Appalachian mountains to fight disease, misfortune, and wild animals. When they reached the hunting ground favored by the Indians—a land of legend—they liked it.” This is all relevant because this is a place where old history never vacates its seat on the front porch.
These poems are gathered in this volume under the title of that bend in a two-lane highway of the poet’s youth and also under those of the wider world’s cities where he later lived. Some of the poems are delivered from these locations; others are floated memories of home. These are hard poems. They were born in a time when men thinned out the cats in the barn with a pitchfork because there’s only so much to go around. There is spareness in these words, human ways perhaps being most clearly seen in their starkest moments.
“I woke up in my parents’ bed
as you leaned over me;
‘Your grandmother died last night.’
You held yourself over me a moment,
like the willow in her backyard
(the one I bailed out of,
holding an open umbrella);
in your eyes I heard again
wailing in the night.”
—”Maternal Uncle”
These poems are smooth like river stones, worn to their polish.
“In my own bed just before sleep, I still hear
rakes touch, clear notes of steel
rising above ripples from the creek,
and I watch underneath me
the long rectangle of embers
sink slowly into the earth.”
—“Burning the Tobacco Bed”
Hovering over the landscape of this book, the poet stops often to gaze back on the images of his mother and his father. She is like water, full and encompassing, flowing through the leaves.
“and my mother, Anne, who once dreamed of leaving the country,
becoming a missionary and never getting married,
would sit on the bench nearby, peeling peaches
or stringing runner beans, frowning;
men, some of them husbands, would sometimes
look around the corners of the house, then melt away.”
—“Two Aunts”
The father is a stone thrown, dark and full of menace.
“Now he waits for me near the barn,
his dark clothes swallowed up
by the dusk—except the farmer’s hat.”
—“The Furious Hat”
The arc of the collection is chronological in spirit, but not necessarily in fixed time. The poems are autobiographical without being confessional or taking even one inch of the diarist’s compulsion. It is more like setting the record straight. In “The Visit”, the poet meets his father after a decade of separation or avoidance:
“We touched as we entered the door:
a reminder of the night your wiry
body ran at me again and again
until I held you off with a gun.”
This is a life, told between the covers. Homosexuality, the deep current of this river, is a diminished explanation of this talent. The acceptance of these poems, the lack of argument or debate, understates and, therefore, magnifies the hardships the reader can only imagine of what is done in the dark and not spoken of in the light. We cannot tell if this is the fuel or the shadows in the soft corners of the room.
Fate is casual. Death sits across the kitchen table with the morning cup of coffee and follows you around all day. You get used to it.
“A platter of deviled eggs
is placed on top of Uncle Slim’s headstone.”
—“Picnic at the Family Cemetery”
“The Hard Bright Images of Your Passing” in the second Traveller’s Rest section is flooded in the harsh morning light, lit in brutality and tenderness. A deathwatch for the mother breaks like thin ice. It begins in mystery.
“Only you can see
children raining from the wall.”
It is followed by a last moment of closeness.
“As we lie side by side through the whole night,
as if placed into twin canoes
you have never been more touching
as you drift toward death, patiently watching it,
I never more rigid,
nails biting into palms,
as I practice it.”
Having left her room and missing her death, the poet returns to the final image, terrible, haunting, and comforting.
“Your eyes, such a fierce green,
are filled with sun.”
There is joy within these poems, but joy is where you find it or seek it out. Take it in slowly, and don’t waste it.
“we lounged in plastic chairs,
drinking beer to the tune of pop-top cans:
first alcohol in ages for Uncle Jim,
tight-lipped mountain fatalism, dis-
solving to quips with each sip”
—“Night Singer”
I don’t think Kentucky has any ex-patriates, only people who don’t live there anymore. If this is where your bones were made—and broken, you can no more leave than you can forget the smell of hundred-year-old water soaked into the wooden clapboards of the scarcely painted houses at the end of a hollow, at the end of the world. Frank Moore stands in the tall grass with fellow Kentuckians Wendell Berry and Jesse Stewart, surveying, observing, and witnessing with a particular type of stillness that is neither calmness nor stoicism. It is a unique bluegrass stance of acceptance, endurance, and fated existence. These are men who are caught on the mountaintop in a lightning storm with full awareness of the possible consequences. There is no foolishness here or roaring back at the storm. It is simply how it is.
Frank D. Moore. Night Singer; the collected poems of Frank D. Moore. Cincinnati: Cyndell Press, 2008. []

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Chris Myers



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