This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 8 May 2016.
Stanley Moss is an undisciplined poet. He deliberately conveys the messy, contingent, and complicated nature of personal and political history, through a frequently chaotic, untidy poetic method. His style is typified by the book’s cover, a murky picture of a grey sky and stormy sea, a battered brown hat tossed carelessly into the middle of it. That’s It’s About Time all over – muddy, moody, and understated in its human elements. Moss’s main weakness comes in his transitions between the sublime and the personal; rather more comfortable in the latter register, he never quite manages to make them fit together as smoothly as they should.
A recurring feature of Moss’s poetry is the sudden appearance of the solid, rhythmic, and memorable line in an ocean of strained and uneven ones. They are quiet, subtle, and easily missed, and for all their eloquence the excessively long buildup diminishes their power. A good example comes in the poem ‘What’, a meditation on the ambiguity of existence. Its opening stanzas are an excessive tangle of signifiers, a pileup of rhetorical questions and real world allusions which convey the frustrations of life in a world both deeply ambiguous and repeatedly quantified:
What is an atheist on the temple mount, and way of the cross.
What says ‘Rome’s Wolf is younger than Manhattan’s Mastodon’.
Rivers of what, what, what, what,
run into the ocean, flood two thirds of the world.
But in the final stanza Moss produces this little passage:
Now death is in fashion but love’s not out of style,
whatever the hemline, glove or cuff.
I don’t see proof death’s worthwhile.
It never says enough.
Here, a moment of clarity; the poetic voice is questioning, curious, but his choice of symbol is concrete and homely, uniting with the straightforward language to create something memorable. The meditation on death contrasts nicely with the “hemline, glove or cuff”, and the gradual reduction in line length emphasizes the point. This is followed by the wonderfully rebellious line “I spit in death’s ocean”, a simultaneous rejection and submission to the ambiguity of death, a statement both rebellious and humble. Unfortunately, the poem then returns to the death-as-clothing image, with the revelation that “Life and death are hand and glove”. There’s nothing wrong with a good mixed metaphor, but this feels like the least interesting option to take, returning to the inevitability of death rather than continuing the subversive play around it. This is a recurrent problem with Moss’s poems; he’s usually having a bit too much fun with his conceits to draw entirely satisfying conclusions.
That sense of playfulness also informs Moss’s religious themes. His poem ‘Hell’, for instance, is a charming and witty riff on George Herbert’s ‘Heaven’, aided by a more scatological style than Herbert would have dared, and managing a few laugh-out-loud moments. That irreverent attitude towards theology also lends his reflections on religious conflict a brutal honesty, such as in his poem ‘Song of Jerusalem Neighbours’, where he declares the concept of God an aphrodisiac for warmongers. However, these aside, the best poems in this collection are undoubtedly the most personal. Reflections on Moss’s dog are an unexpected highlight, funny and heartfelt, their domestic scale piercing Moss’s self-conscious textuality to create genuine pathos:
My good dog Bozo ran wild with my shoes.
Because I sleep and dream old news,
secrets I keep from myself, I smile in deceit,
while my dog smiles, mounts a wolf at my feet.
It is this voice, generous, witty and self-deprecating, that Moss truly excels at, and which does more to indicate an awareness of time and memory than any number of ponderous metaphysical exercises. Unfortunately, this voice is by far the less present of the two, and over 170 pages that sense of inconsistency becomes exhausting. At the end of the day, the best I can say of It’s About Time is that it has its moments.
‘It’s About Time’ is published by Carcanet Press, and available to buy from their website.