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So Rarely in Our Skins Paperback – May 16 2002

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Robert Moore’s So Rarely in Our Skins is a postmodern grab bag. In this collection, we find whimsical meditations; irreverent ekphrasis; somber pieces about death and divorce; a jazz haiku; surreal philosophizing in prose; re-imaginings of classical mythology; dramatic monologues delivered by famous fictional characters-I’m sure I’ve left much out, but you get the picture. His poems are allusive, drawing references not only from literary texts and Greek myths, but also from the spheres of visual art and 20th Century popular culture. Not surprisingly, given this mix, and given the fact that Moore is also a playwright, these poems are peopled by a multiplicity of voices as well, the speakers by times laconic, pedantic, chatty, formal, coy, satiric, grief-stricken, and tender.
Of the hodgepodge of poetic hats Moore wears in this debut effort, I found some fit better than others. This poet displays his talents to best advantage when in a whimsical mode. Some of the strongest work in this book is presented in pieces such as “From The Golden Book of Bovinities”. Spoken in the voice of collective bovinity, the humour of this set piece ranges from wry (“Among other things, Prince Edward Island is famous for its cows./The bitterness of its horses alone must be spectacular.”) to gallows (“It is widely believed that even our tongues end up on their plates./Naturally, our feelings on this subject are very difficult/to put into words.”). In “Siren at the Full-Service Station”, Moore torques his verse to its highest assonantal pitch: “But/think back on calendar girl, alone with her bones on that/blanket of stone. Those deathless open-toed shoes.” Other bits of whimsy are less felicitous. “Famous Artist Descending a Standard Biography” is clever and funny at points, but goes on far too long.“From The Collected Veils of Salome” is similarly unengaging and forgettable.
Moore plays it fast and loose with form, but his free verse is usually modulated by internal and occasional rhyme. Too often, however, the poet slackens his grip and allows superfluous factual prose to dam the flow of his poems. This happens most frequently in his more personal, conversational pieces. In some cases, such as “In the Garden” and “The Deer”, the loose, chatty tone works (though many of these poems seem derivative of Al Purdy’s voice). But in a poem like “We Cremated My Mother”, the poet gives us these opening lines: “But I wasn’t there. I was miles away./In a completely different province,/in fact.” A promising beginning, which dwindles into irrelevant detail, complete with the disposable adverb “completely.” The poem concludes: “The Bible lying open in the minister’s hand/is limp as an empty bird, charred and wet./She is not here, he says, looking up.//Christ I hope not, is really my only thought.” Again, a potentially charged passage is flattened by a throwaway adverb. “Missing” and especially “The Skin You Wore” (one of the best poems in the collection) are far more convincing -and not coincidentally more tightly wound-articulations of grief and affection:

The skin you wore through cortisone years
has thinned to almost nothing now,
a papery set of veils that barely holds
the muddled, berried flesh of legs and arms.

We never thought we’d see you down
to so few and such awful careful steps.
But you forget the harm in moving
as you used to through the world, until

flowers open on your clothes.
So when you go, I promise I will not say
“She died,” but that I knew a woman
of skin so fine she stepped out of it
one day before we even realized.

In less personal work, Moore is often too scholarly for his own good. There is an embarrassment of quoted material included as epigraphs (including three from reference books) or embedded text, which imparts to the collection a whiff of chalkdust. Moore’s relocation of mythic figures into modern settings (or vice-versa) sometimes backfires. In “Polyxena’s First Love”, an otherwise strong poem is marred by gratuitous reference to a “Classics Illustrated comic book.” This postmodern gimmick does work in, say, “From Helen of Troy to Odysseus, Camp of the Greeks” or “Icarus Lived on as The Incredible Falling Man,” in which Moore exploits the strategy to its full potential.
As a last word, So Rarely in Our Skins should have been edited ruthlessly. At one hundred-plus pages, it could have shed thirty or more and been much snappier as a result.
Zach Wells (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada

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Reviewed in Canada on October 19, 2014
Reviewed in Canada on October 29, 2004
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