Eating Peanut Butter Right Out of the Jar

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Poet Jim Moore endeared himself to me years ago with a little poem in which he mused/amused himself with a tiny series of life notations, circa seven years old, ending with the remark that his mother had no idea that he was eating peanut butter right out of the jar. In the midst of serious poet angst, serious word play, serious world crisis, Jim Moore brought us into an immediate, slightly shame-faced little moment. The kind rarely displayed on stage or screen. I used the poem a multitude of times to inspire kids to write about how they too got away with a little something which was forbidden. On a few occasions, I tried to emulate Jim’s approach. No dice. What Jim captured had an ineffable stamp all his own.

A few days ago, I stood above a shifting, rippling stream of language, perception, empathy that is Jim’s new book, Invisible Strings (Graywolf, 2011). It bubbles up to amuse and delight:

How far away

it is possible to go from Saint Paul
in a single night of raucous dreams:
I wake up before dawn,
joyful, moon sliding in
through the slats
of our broken bamboo curtain. (section 2 “Trying to Leave Saint Paul”) (NOTE: the line spacings may not be retained in the published version of the blog. So, think of the first line that looks like a title as part of the stanza’s message, and after that every second line is indented to meet the indentation of the title.)

The surface amuses and delights, but then we are sucked into deep holes around hidden rocks:

Her friends come now

every day since the death of her brother
to walk the floor along with her
as she sweeps up
in the little cafe
where we came to know her
before the grief of her true life began. (section 3 “Of All Places”)

This is a very flexible medium. It is in glinting motion because the lines spread themselves over the white space with an ease that is surely studied but never feels so. It is poetry easy on the eye and heart, yet it does not shrink from grief, catastrophe, even tiny moments of self-hate, which we accept because the poet is so often full of love, love for his life, for those who share it with him, for the catastrophes that befall so many. He is both the observer on the bank of the river, and in and of the river itself, aware and submerged, staying afloat, though sometimes just barely.

His work in this book reminds me of the 8th century Chinese poet Tu Fu (712-770), also water-borne since his rather tenuous life in service to emperors gave way to wandering, famine, revolution, and floating in a house boat on the Yangtze river. One of his translators writes of Tu Fu, “his famous compassion includes himself, viewed quite objectively and almost as an afterthought” (Hawkes, 1967). Neither to diminish nor elevate, I’d like to call Jim Moore’s new book our own midwestern Tu Fu and invite you to enjoy these poems over and over, because like watching a river, each time adds sparkle and depth.

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