Stanley Moss has been a longtime fixture on the poetry scene. He’s worked as an editor at New Directions, the New York Herald Tribune, the New American Review, and elsewhere. He founded the Sheep Meadow Press, dedicated to poetry in English and translation. He’s enjoyed friendships with Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Stanley Kunitz, Yehuda Amichai, W.S. Merwin, and many others. But his work as a poet has received less attention than his activity as an editor, publisher, and literary man-about-town.
As Moss approaches his 92nd birthday, the wittily titled Almost Complete Poems brings his poetry to the forefront. The book chronicles a seven-decade career writing poems that are erudite and whimsical, parabolic and plainspoken, obsessed with God (and His absence), the natural world (especially dogs and trees), the mechanics of language (and poetry), and the human body (especially female bodies). It’s a capacious collection, and it bears witness to a considerable poetic talent, albeit one that is hard to pin down or affix a label to.
Moss got off to a somewhat slow start as a poet, with his first book appearing at age 41 and his second at age 54. But he seems to be accelerating into his twilight years, with roughly half the poems in this 600-page volume having appeared after the age of 78 (fully one-third after the age of 88, i.e. in the last three years). The persona in his late poems bears some resemblance to Yeats’ “Wild Old Wicked Man”: aggressive, frankly carnal, unembarrassed by his animal urges, and perhaps a bit eager to shock the reader. But even his early works are not the poems of a “young person.”, Beginning with his first collection, the persona is worldly, irreverent, and glutted with experience. From the start, he’s feasting in the shadow of mortality:
Give me a death like Buddha’s. Let me fall
over from eating mushrooms Provençale,
a peasant wine pouring down my shirtfront,
my last request not a cry but a grunt.
His poems often take the form of little parables or allegories. The symbolism is teased out gently from an image or idea, sometimes in multiple directions at once. In an early poem titled “Clams,” he seems to be both celebrating the innocence of life and cursing its stupidity:
Ancient of Days, bless the innocent
who can do nothing but cling,
open or close their stone mouths….
Bless all things unaware that perceive
life and death as comfort or discomfort:
bless their great dumbness.
We die misinformed
with our mouths of shell open.
At the last moment, as our lives fall off,
a gull lifts us, drops us on the rocks, bare
because the tide is out. Flesh sifts the sludge.
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 4:62-64