In Dana Gioia’s memoir, Studying with Miss Bishop, he mentions that a late book by James Dickey is so bad he was sure it was going to win a prize, which it did. But Amanda Moore’s book, Requeening, a winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series Award, is so good it restores my faith in the award process. The intimacy of tone is what first drew me to this volume, the way Moore draws you into her experience, her perception, her world.
Moore’s poems document a rich, complex life, and stepping into her book is to immerse oneself in the perils and pleasures of domesticity. Beekeeping—its wonder and precarity—permeates these poems that detail love, family, birth, motherhood, illness, and survival. It’s clear from the variety of forms, the metric musicality of the work, that Moore is a poet who reads and studies, a practice that informs and elevates her poems.
The book is in five sections, each with an epigram, starting with Sylvia Plath, followed by: lucille clifton, Maurice Maeterlink, Basho, and Jo Shapcott. The overarching metaphor that ties the sections together is the world of bees—their hive existence, their fragility, their inscrutable, fascinating ways. Of course, their world, so different from ours, also evokes ours in its prismatic intricacy. The analogies are both subtle and explicit. As Moore notes in an early poem, “Waggle Dance”:
Everything beautiful can be reduced
to scientific measurement:
this swoop and waggle...
It would take more than map
to chart me
my dips and spins...
These images, the complexity and precarity of living in the world—for bee and human, haunt this collection, as the poems explore a consciously lived existence. There is tenderness without sentimentality and acknowledgement of the messiness of love, much of it framed in the metaphor of the hive, our mutual connectedness and mystery. In the title poem, Moore interweaves the mysteries of marriage with those of the rigors of the hive, ending:
Even if it would devour us, I would chew
Through this cage we keep our love in
To make us new to each other once more.
The poems don’t shy from the messiness of marriage, motherhood, illness. How refreshing to read a poet who acknowledges the ambiguity of feeling in the most intimate moments. Whether the poet is revisiting places she has lived, family connection, grave illness, her vision is exacting, she reports what she finds without flinching or censoring her discomfort.
One of my favorite poems in this book that deals with the complexity of a long marriage is “The Broken Leg,” in the book’s second section. It details the aftermath of an accident:
there is the carrying of urine
the changing of bandages
the creak of crutches and incessant talk of scabs...
In short, it’s unromantic,
This child in the shape of my husband,
the outstretched hand, rumpled head and hungry mouth...
...And did I mention the servitude? How I proffer it
tenderly and resentfully, each day
a new opportunity to fail...
It’s hard enough some days
To drag myself from bed, tired pilgrim limping
Toward the impossible grotto of happiness.
The poem traverses this painful territory with eyes wide open, but ends on affirmation:
And yet, I don’t despise the bike that broke his leg
and dragged us into this knowing... I don’t always say Stop.
Don’t be a jackass. You don’t know what this will do to us.
Sometimes I say Go faster. Let me see that trick you do again.
The complex journey of the poem, from daily service and resentment through the foreshadowing of the disability of age is lifted by the turn at the end, the sparky, impish love of this man that shines through the grit of the chores.
Equally affecting are the series of haibun for a teenage daughter, which capture the scrappy, scrabbly nature of love for a teen: “Who is this child beside me, railing against each word, hurling insults until I, too, begin to weep? We are a wild, primal thing…” It outlines the difficult line a mother has to walk, as when she sees her daughter naked at the waterfall after “the hormones dropped like bombs.” “I try not to openly marvel at the new indentations and curves that tuck in just above her hip bones, dimply pudge that folds along her stomach’s last remnants of baby fat, and is that a whisper of hair on her pubis? I can’t let her see me staring, yet I can’t help but stare.”
Another stunning section of this rich and varied book deals with cancer and surviving cancer. Such poems can be leaden or treacly. These are not. Here’s a sample, titled “Melanoma.”
The speck could have been the footprint
of a tiny god alighting on my shoulder
but instead it’s the devil—his blackened eye,
harbinger, new moon, bottomless well. Will I too
be brought down by a sliver
of vulnerable flesh? Cup of midnight
spilled where I cannot reach, errant
mole, lack hole, darkened window opening
onto Death’s back porch. So much battle
left in me but for this chink in the armor,
fingerprint of destruction, fatal kiss,
burnt tip of match just touched to the pyre.
The poem, “After the Phone Call I Teach Book 11” deals with having to teach the Odyssey to her high school class after receiving terrifying biopsy results by phone:
My 9th graders file into our room
and I am at the whim of divine irony:
my mortality unspooling
just as I have to teach a lesson
on Odysseus’s journey to the Underworld
where he hears true suffering isn’t death itself
but the afterlife. Of Achilles’ monologue, one student opines
even the worst life is better than the best death.
There are too many of these to quote, all of them searing, honest, meaningful, as the poet learns “the tyranny of treasuring each moment” while on “a carousel of anguish.” The double haibun, “Found Notebooks Haibun” in this section is devastating, delineating the measurements of love and the scientific rigor the poet’s husband employs to manage his love.
An additional delight I found in this book is Moore’s ability to turn a long rumination into a clear, succinct vision, almost the way the haiku works at the end of the haibun. In the fourth section, the poem “Everything Is a Sign Today,” meditates on the common experience of finding special personal significance in random events. It ends with a reflection on Monet’s haystacks:
...all of them nearly the same:
haystack, haystack, haystack. The only difference
the season and the time of day, which is to say
they are like this grief these months later:
all the same except for the light.
It’s hard to know how to sum up a book of this variety and depth. Even without the epigrams, it’s clear the work comes to us from deep within the history of poetry, its vision, its probing, its pleasure in exploration of the world.
Perhaps, as the poet says she “just likes to touch fear,” but it’s a touch of such deep comprehension and compassion that it transforms that fear the way bees turn pollen into honey.
Meryl Natchez’ fourth book, Catwalk received an Indie Best Book 2020 Award from Kirkus Reviews. Her poems and reviews have appeared in LA Review of Books, Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, ZYZZYVA, Literary Matters, American Journal of Poetry, and many other publications. She blogs at www.merylnatchez.com and is Chair of the Marin Poetry Center in Northern California.