Thursday, October 18, 2007

 

Laura Moriarty’s An Air Force, just out from Hooke Press, is a beautiful & terribly sad memoir of the author’s youth as an “air force brat,” the daughter of a Vietnam era jet mechanic. Beautiful because Moriarty is a master of the sparest of styles, as the book’s opening passage makes evident:

I am born in the Air Force.

Preexisting condition

Eternall War

1 body

Will the force of the air create global cataclysm and despair?

In 1946 Tom Moriarty enlists in the Army Air Force at
Fort Snelling in Minneapolis. He is 17.

Jack rabbits on the runway in waves

Where the periwinkle sky gives onto

Pictures of a childlike father in uniform.

I wait for something to happen that makes sense. Our neighbor is killed in
Vietnam. He leaves a son behind who is my age. I am 12. It is 1964.

Excessive casualties with no strategic payback now as before.

Orders

Ordinance

Stoicism

We move to Otis Air Force Base from
St Paul when I am 3. My parents have never heard of Cape Cod. They look it up in an atlas. Mae is a secretary for 3M, then called Minnesota Mining. She quits when she has me. Tom is a sergeant and jet mechanic. At Otis he will be a flight engineer on the C-121 Constellation, flying for the 961st Squadron of the Air Defense Command. His job is to keep the plane in the air. The version he flies, customized with a radar dome on top and an undercarriage full of surveillance equipment is called a Pregnant Connie.

Reconnaissance

Permanent change of station

Creative destruction

Cold War

Promotional opportunity

Roughly the first two pages of a 25-page chapbook, Moriarty here moves between the deeply personal, the coldly objective & the linguistic detritus of the period.¹ It is this latter feature, the absolute banality of so many terms & phrases, that colors this text in the monochromes of any military base. In the sequence above, we have one term, Reconnaissance, whose French roots track its history in military theory, terms that reflect their own internal contradictions (including here importing Joseph Schumpeter’s Creative destruction from the field of economics), focusing finally on the personal dimension a jet mechanic might see in such circumstances.

In the very best of times – peace – the life of an enlisted family compares with that of one living on welfare in the projects – not only are pay bad and living conditions marginal, but the constant movement of personnel prevents any cumulative sense of place or identification with community beyond one’s “branch” of the military. In war, these same people become blood sacrifice to the great machine of policy. The same public brutalism that channels such a large portion of our black men into the criminal justice system has few qualms about sending young men & women into harm’s way halfway around the world if the alternative is to appear “weak” at election time. All the rhetoric about the military representing our “best & brightest” is patently hypocritical – if they were as alleged, the very last place they would turn to would be such indentured servitude.

It’s not clear how Moriarty’s parents got to the Air Force in the first place – their lives here present a horizon. From another perspective, of course, they could have been the center of this mystery. What made them expendable? What we have instead is the truncated perspective of any coming of age tale, one where the men philander & beat their wives, where neighbors are shipped abroad never to return. Somehow in this barren military housing landscape, one young woman found poetry, or it found her, initially in the form of Vachel Lindsay & A.E. Housman.

So this is, at one level, the most personal of stories. It is also, in the same moment, a fable, a tale of caution. What happened to the Moriarty family during Vietnam could just as easily occur today in the context of Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or Iran. Wherever men & women of limited economic prospects are channeled into opportunities to gain a career & see the world &, most of all, just get the hell out of Dodge. Tom Moriarty was not the only man to make a life out of getting beyond Minnesota. Wherever. Viz, for example, the whole New York School of Tulsa.

Moriarty has always been a writer of great economy – even her most lush writing often feels austere, as tho she disapproves of excess in all forms. The closest antecedent I can think of is the work of George Oppen – not a minimalist in the sense, say, of Creeley or Armantrout, but avoiding anything anywhere that might be taken for padding. An Air Force feels especially stripped down, as if this in itself were the point.

In contrast, Moriarty’s other new book this season feels large & rich. A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975-2007, just out from Omnidawn, gathers work from all of her previous poetry collections (there have been two novels), and – unless I am mistaken – a couple that have yet to appear as well. At 220 pages & with 12-point type, it’s the sort of impeccable cornucopia I suspect any one of us wants our own selected poems to be. It’s one of those big books that, not unlike Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets, let you know that this author is well past the “promising young poet” phase and has emerged as one of the master writers on the American stage.

You can see how her spare style can build texts of astonishing density & luster, such as this, an uncollected work that leads off this book:

Waking from
Sleep a Thousand Miles Thick

The blue crack as the snow
Unfastens the house
Sheer moon section white leaf
eyes beaming drip
with salt-heavy
silver coin sleep
Heated air tired 
seeps out of flesh
I wake each morning velvet
eared from night’s wine
Listen for the child
Our animals nestling
Count themselves mumble
Calm stars fading
Energy bristles from tight
Foreheads, eyes
Violet shadows like spirits
Leap between house and barn
The day’s whir begins
The sun’s lip
enfolds the horizon

Blouse crumpled my
breasts unbuttoned into sleeping
lips The spirits handspring October
white apple smell nostril
quivers Sugar taste
The dream pours into the listening
room Petals bunch into
eyes closed against stark
light golden, speeding Our room
winged mother-of-pearl within its
tough clam bright car merging
onto a swift freeway at dawn

                                Using 44 words from
                                Bruce Conner’s “Tables and Cards”
                                Hansen-Fuller Gallery Nov 1975

If she didn’t tell you at the end that she was using a procedure, I don’t think you would notice. That she’s decided to employ material from a work of funk artist Bruce Conner – whose heyday was the 1960s, part of a West Coast scene that was an adjunct to the rise of the Beats & the New Americans generally – others included George Herms, Ed Keinholz, Jay DeFeo, Robert Duncan’s partner Jess, William T. Wiley, David Gilhooly, Viola Frey – tells you considerably more. What often appear to be straightforward textual surfaces are often, in Moriarty’s work, the consequence of complex cumulative methodology. Only the result looks simple.

This is an approach to writing that both values its audience and, perhaps even more so, the privacy of the artist regardless of how much of her life she bares. One sense that I always take from her writing is just how much pleasure there must be involved in its creation, but I’m not always sure that this is the side of it that she wants to share. This duality is something that I sense as well from a number of other women writers, especially around the Bay Area – Bev Dahlen, Leslie Scalapino, the late Barbara Guest. One result is that Moriarty, like these others, is somebody I can read profitably repeatedly, focusing on very different aspects of the work with each reading.

A Semblance does not appear to be edited in strict chronological order, which I always find a little frustrating (as I did most recently with Tom Pickard’s Hole in the Wall for the same reason). Yet the great risk of any selected or collected edition – think of Williams, whose writing was quite pedestrian until he reached his late 30s – is that the early work will be weakest & that readers might never make it to the great later pieces if they must plow through 20 or 50 pages of juvenilia first. But if there was any period of Moriarty’s life in which she produced less than mature works, it’s been complete erased from this volume. This book sings from cover to cover.

 

¹ The double l of Eternall is not a typo – Moriarty occasionally will set a word or phrase off at an angle like this, just enough torque to ripple the surface.

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