Margin: 

Exploring Modern Magical Realism

E M E R G I N G   P O E T   S E R I E S
Introducing: Carolyn Moore
b y   t a m a r a   s e l l m a n   ~   M A R G I N

What does it mean to be an emerging poet?

Various literary interests define that emergence differently, so it's not surprising to find that some people are confused by the term. Emerging, they ask… from what? A coma? Bankruptcy? The womb? A near-death experience?

But seriously. How much should a poet have published in order to break out of beginner status? Is it about the number of magazine credits or book titles one has accumulated as a poet, or is it simply about quality? Would it ever be possible for a poet to become an overnight success? That sort of emergence is likely improbable, but not impossible. Should there be some boilerplate list of prizes, degrees, mentorships, grants and other validations at the ready to prove a poet's worth?

We use the term emerging here to define those poets whose work we should watch out for in the future. These poets, in our minds, have track records. They've published solid, consistent work for many years and deserve to break out from the bulk of work that isn't quite there yet. That's not to say an emerging poet is ready for the laureate's throne. (At least, not yet.) But when a poet's voice resonates memorably from one page to the next, he or she's due a little extra credit.

Oregon resident Carolyn Moore has won more than five dozen different awards for her poetry since high school. That's a tremendous record, and it makes sense. When you figure that she's probably entered every literary contest there ever was, you can do your own math and figure out the probability. As they say, you can't win if you don't play.

Well, that's only sometimes true, Moore will quickly point out. Fraudulent poetry competitions abound, she says. As a result, she teaches a workshop entitled "Confessions of a Contest Junkie" which waves a huge red flag over the world of poetry contests. Her mission is to teach her fellow writers how to identify legitimate writing contests from their scam-artist cousins.

Moore's creative efforts don't begin and end with this terrific service to her artistic community, however. She's equally known for being an accomplished composer of what she calls "mask poems." It's no coincidence, then, to discover how that interest mirrors her work as a performance maskmaker. Thus, her masks are rendered not only from words, but from papier mâché and latex slip.

Two of her mask poems have won awards; one from New Millennium Writings, the other from the Internet's Delirium Journal. Her recent accolades don't end there. Moore is also the 2005 winner of the 2005 New Eden Chapbook prize; she's also completed a collection of poetry for which she won the C. Hamilton Bailey Fellowship in Poetry.

Her affinity for communicating ideas through masks makes for a natural parallel with the kind of conveyence to which magical realism aspires. Magical realism, after all, is about using story as a device for telling the truth. Though masks themselves are often thought of as devices for hiding, in truth, the use of masks may be the only way that hard truth can be conveyed safely. So it's natural that Moore can't help but define magical realism through the language of masks:

"Through eye-slits of the mask of magical realism, we see the invisible world restored to visibility. Objects tell their stories. Narratives about hard realities—abuse, the death penalty, the repression of the other or the self—shapeshift from off-putting preaching to riffs as inviting as a ripe peach in the dead of winter."

Indeed, Moore illustrates this shapeshifting, these secret lives of objects through the following four poems, the first a narrative tribute to the way people make persona in "The Last Night of Maskmaking." The second poem, "The Selkie Discovers the Information Age," is certainly about a selkie (an ancient mythological creature from Ireland), but it could just as easily be a treatise on ancient feminist wisdom and its uphill battle against a world where information is considered the same thing as knowledge. Sticking with the maritime theme, "On Trial for Murder, the Mermaid Takes the Stand in Her Own Defense" makes for a gripping trilogy of courtroom transcripts that explore how easily the truth is misinterpreted, depending upon one's belief system. Finally, click here to read Moore's columnar process poem, "Directions for a Zinc Plate Etching," which is told in three voices, including that of the etching itself. Its unusual format commands its own page.

THREE POEMS
c a r o l y n   m o o r e   ~   t i g a r d ,   o r e g o n

THE LAST NIGHT OF MASKMAKING
for Carolyn Lehman

I took on the face and ways of a new person
walked in him and was redeemed

Ode 17, The Odes of Solomon, a Gnostic text

We bring dates, hummus, stuffed tomatoes, bread
exhaling warm yeast. Nothing made from meat.
After dinner, we feast again on color:
cerulean blue, burnt umber, acra red.
Six women mix more acrylics than needed
unless we paint our bodies to match our masks.
No one here chose to work in leather—all
stuck with and to papier mâché's weak flesh,
layer by later building up its strength.

The only men who show for this last class
are the two masks our pair of lovers paint:
a blue rain god, his lips pursed to blow storms
and the fisher king, wistful around the eyes.
Both males are comic, frail as paper bits
before their bracing baptism in glue.

Tonight, our mother and daughter paint their ghouls
more human each brushstroke. Our ER nurse
fledges her raven's head as my bird-beaked crone
grows age lines, forked like lightning, from her eyes.
Now and then we trade masks, pass them on
like communion cups, lift each and breathe through damp
nose holes, the fresh paint smelling a bit like blood.
The Latin word for mask is persona—not
a face to hide beneath. These paper lips
release the voices we feel and steal. I slip
behind the fisher king and sigh for trout.

In a Gnostic text, the goddess Voice declares
herself the mother of invention, then
vanishes down a hole in the brittle scroll.
Tonight our teacher trades her masks for music.
Knot by knot she drapes dried gourds in loose
jackets of beads. She shakes one shekere.
Glass whisks its rounded belly, conceiving sound.
Into the mouth of the VCR, she slips
the video of her trip to Bali. Dim shapes
pulse on the screen to flutes and gongs and thwungs
from something like a wood marimba tipped
on its side. We float on cymbals to the temple.
Masked dancers shake their shoulders as they cry
chak, chak, chak! coaxing Sanghyang into her trance
so she may learn what the gods expect of us.

In Bali, the maskmaker leads the priest
into the forest. The holy man must find
the trees where trapped faces await their carving.
Tonight, across the sea, six women sense
something caught inside, asking for release.
At home, unfinished masks await us all:
merfolk, selkies, the seven deadly sins.
None chosen for this final night—yet each
a prayer for all that fails us. All we fail.

Late in August, plans for Halloween
drew us here. Halfway through October rains,
all talk of costume parties rinsed away.
Something never sought found and named us
mothers of invention. Our fellowship
soon ends. We'll scatter back to scattered lives.
Yet this—this smelling meat we didn't know
we hungered for—this may endure: the call
to the servant's heart to tend the needs of priest
and guiding carver, to redeem the forest
of invention, where live faces wait in trees.

                                

THE SELKIE DISCOVERS THE INFORMATION AGE

As I looked the other way he took my skin.
He must have seen me surface from the hiss
of seafoam, watched me roll and lurch ashore,
heard the suck as I slid from pelt to sand.

I felt my fin-flesh split as fingers, toes.
The other changes came quick upon the heels,
the legs, then arms and breasts. Surely my eyes
remain the same? At the faint crunch of shells

I turned and saw him vanish round a dune.
That's the instant I became a woman
stuck on land. He'll come to claim me once
he hides my skin. Those are the old, old rules.

Our ancient tales warn of such beachings—warn
these flailing limbs can't swim me home again.
I'm to make peace with them and search his haunts
to reclaim the furred gate to my stronger self.

That much I knew. Yet no one warned the mind
could change as well—or how each moment drops
its load of facts-on-land. Like how things work,
what they're named. See? Just like that I know

actuary tables and can explain
how holograms work, how their manganese
particles flit and reshape as delicate
artifice. So much information—

so little knowledge. And how's the hermit crab
mind to fit all this clutter in its shell?
Must I discard, forget, how limpets grip
their rocks? how fanned kelp flirts with fins? Just now

something important about coral reefs
floated away. My selkie sense of future
dims. That image winking out—it's me
tidying up his house, my head a-slosh

with recipes for fishcakes, stew, my eyes
smaller and leached from black to gray. I move
our bed and knock a floor plank loose. Concealed
below I find a stiff and stinking hide.

I drag it off to the burn-pile outside.

                                

ON TRIAL FOR MURDER, THE MERMAID TAKES THE STAND IN HER OWN DEFENSE

[Trial transcript, p. 284: the Mermaid is asked to describe her relationship to the victim prior to December 21st]

Afterward she wouldn't eat
the soft white caul of an orange,
couldn't stomach those flat cakes,
placentas, used as lifelines
when the holidays capsize.

After what? What untold pain
spoke solely through appetite?
We, her friends, felt it a crime
to stand by, not raise a fin.

True, we were still human then,
with a human need to know.
How else could we comfort her?
Coming no closer on land,
we tracked her into ocean.

Like sticks that pretend to bend
at the surface, we waded
half in. You do anything
for a friend, even sprout gills.

The deeper she seduced us,
the farther down she led us
from our old element, air,
the more she changed. We changed, too.
She began to eat strange food.

Why? Our prying turned sodden,
shed its warm, useless land-root,
human concern. We hungered
now cold-blooded for our clues.

That is all I offer you
as motive, explanation.
We found no answers and so
bring none to you. My jurors,
are you feeling hooked and barbed

by sharp curiosity
my words have failed to appease?
Is this how your attention
is rewarded? Its belly

slit and gutted on the shore?
Who should pay for this, your pain?

[Trial transcript, p. 285: after the Prosecutor's objection is sustained, the Mermaid is asked to recount the events of December 21st]

What happened next, our old realm—
yours—calls a feeding frenzy.
You who judge me, keep in mind
she was the one who brought gills
on us. Breathing saltwater
forced more changes. Never mind—
I don't mean to blame the sea.
Call us her friends… or jury?
There we were, circling closer
with demands to understand,
as you do now. Appetite.

It all circles back to that
craving for answers. We found
none and so turned our hunger
onto her. Consider this:
did she wield us as her tool?
Was her plan suicidal?
And now who circles like sharks
round a disturbance? Whose teeth
are now honed insatiable
by a curiosity
fished up and served as justice?

[Trial transcript, p. 1481: at her sentencing, the Mermaid is permitted to speak on her own behalf]

Last week as I took the stand,
several men of the jury
sniggered as my comic flukes
floundered across these dry boards.
I will not plead for mercy.

Once the prosecution blurred
distinctions between mermaid,
sea-nymph, then nympho—my fate
was sealed. Handcuffed, I slid here
through hisses and jeers of fish!

To judge me is to join me.
Any hunger after blood
passes sentence on itself.
As you feed, consider this:
imagine you've found yourself

over your head in water,
yet compelled to stay under.
What changes would you endure
to keep on breathing? Could you
bear your flesh shattered to scales?

Your feet vised inside a tail?
A steady ripple begins
to thrill the spot where your ear
used to be. Can you feel them,
the delicate clefts and slits?

Just how far are you willing
to go to keep it pumping,
that heart shrinking strange and cold?

                                

DIRECTIONS FOR A ZINC PLATE ETCHING


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