Notes from the Castle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Although not traditional to the letter, the cadences of Moss’s poetry are largely formal, and its tone is that of civilized conversation—witty and elaborately simple. Its scenes are often set in elegant suburban milieus, and its themes are those of a cultivated man preserving his sense of style as best he can as he watches his world fall apart.

The book’s title poem suavely puts its hand over its yawn; the energy has gone out of the voice and his surroundings, and in his sophisticated adult view “each childish wish/Grows hopeless,” including the relief of romantic sex. In “The Night Express,” the reservoir has dried up, making the “dry wit” of the travelers do so, and symbolizing the inability of the past to nourish present custom any longer, as the old woman finds when her bathtub fills with rusty water. Pollution has ruined the resort environment in “News from the Border” (although “the summer clients stay faithful”) and new strains of life threaten “what is left of civilization.” The past may hang on inside a house, for its objects make nostalgia possible, but only the brainless yearn for it; the real power of life is in how it rebuilds itself each spring without remembering it did it before. Still, the poet, arriving from his polite world, sees Mexico City as an aged and ongoing monument to mortality, violence, and hysteria; it is as though Augustine’s “City of God” were no more than the City of Man dressed to the hilt, for the only difference between them is how they define “comfort,” “the management” of which is the purpose of a city. Echoing the active disruption under the surface of things, “Elegy for My Sister” wants us to notice not only the cancer eating out the center, but also that one grows into surroundings where worse and worse things happen to him, where his nostalgia, melancholy, and anticipation are ironic, and where he finds neither sympathy for his dying nor any truth to his idea of it.

Civilization means having the time to invent niceties, and it happens after survival is no longer a problem and before the vulgar and violent to which its classic images are juxtaposed take over (“Incomplete and Disputed Sonatas”). To be civilized, that is, means to do something secondary—to dress life, as it were, in the proper attire. One of the ironies of the civilized mind, moreover, is that it sees pretty designs in decay and sees most clearly when the decay is worst, although “process” is so disorderly in itself that its own historical formulations are as useless, one might say, as shoes in deep water (“Standards”).

The cultured man, however, cannot help reminiscing about the places, events, and people in his life, which in Moss’s case include the Met and the Loew’s “Valencia” in New York, the opera “Wozzeck” and “chicken sandwiches” during its intermissions, and James Merrill in Greece and W. H. Auden in heaven, about the latter of whom Moss says, “when he died, I felt that truth had left/The world for good” (“Stars”).

Clinching its view that ideal forms and personal deeds sag in the end, Moss’s book gives “versions” of Joseph Brodsky’s “Torso” and “I Sit by the Window.” In the first, all the items in the perfect land are made of “stone” and “bronze,” but they injure and repulse living things and finally break apart. In the second, the voice reviews the ways he regarded life and ends in the dark with...

(The entire section is 1416 words.)