by Gilbert Allen
A review of Saying These Things by Ronald Moran.
In that rarity of rarities within 21st-century American PoBiz—a blurb actually worth reading—Jennifer Bosveld offers the following appraisal of Saying These Things: "There are only so many words in our combined vocabularies, but somehow Ron Moran continues to come up with new combinations, with accessible style that invites both new readers of poetry and the learned and usual suspects." If Moran were a jazz musician rather than a poet, the relevant term would be crossover appeal. His poems are vividly anecdotal, deceptively simple, and alluring to novice and expert alike.
Moran’s best readers, however, will often wonder where a particular invocation of daily life ends and where the surrealistic elaboration begins—if it does begin. Some of Moran’s poems, from beginning to end, remain firmly grounded in everyday experience. But everyday experience need not be dull. "Walking" is an amusing example. The speaker, out for his "usual walk" between a cemetery and a hayfield, encounters a woman in "a rusted-out Ford Pinto" who asks him, "Have you accepted Christ?" Stunned, the speaker pauses for a moment, stares "straight ahead / toward the road's dead end," and offers his reply:
When I turned back towards her,
said, We are on good terms.
She stepped on the gas, releasing
a bank of blue exhaust, turned
at the end of the road, gunned
the Pinto past me, and shot
me the bird, three quick times.
The poem’s precise, prosaic narrative takes a sudden turn in this final stanza, just like that hole-y Pinto. Gunned and shot play off each other nicely, to encourage readers to make a mental U-turn when they encounter the phrase "me the bird." The poem's final trinity seems startling, rhythmically insistent, and exactly right.
I like the quiet fireworks of these poems, the highly imaginative use of language that, on the sentence level, seems studiously ordinary. In this respect, Moran recalls Wallace Stevens’s playful oversimplifications in such poems as "Anecdote of the Jar" and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." In Stevens, though, we also find playfully baroque embellishment. ("Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna hackles, halt!") Moran, on the other hand, always keeps his diction simple and direct. He prefers to defamiliarize through context rather than through language. Take, for example, the deliberately banal first line of "A Man on a Desert Island": "A man on a desert island says he is saved." In line 2, Moran provides another, seemingly unrelated cliché to revitalize the first: "but the flying saucer hovering above him."
And the poet leaves us, in lines 3-5, with an image of Homo moranus, the aging loner whose hopes exist only to be dashed by the cosmos. That flying saucer
beams up only the palm tree on which his
back rests, leaving him without support
on an island like an abandoned anthill.
Saying These Things is divided into five parts, each with a dominant motif: reading and the activity of interpretation in part one; autobiographical reminiscences in part two; medical problems in part three; the enduring presence of deceased parents in part four; aging and mortality in part five. Although Moran is by no means a "confessional" poet, he does draw directly upon his personal experience in ways that Stevens never does. One finishes the book with an offbeat exhilaration, as suggested by the last stanza of "On Thinking of Moving into a Retirement Center":
My syllables catch in mid-air, hanging,
drifting like a box kite’s broken string,
taking forever to wriggle back to earth.
I walk toward the sweet flush of night,
the air turning heavy, wet, delicious,
as when, as a boy of eleven, I pushed
the girl next door on a swing hanging
from a bare limb, under a massive oak.
The book's design is simple and handsome. The well-thorned rose on the cover complements the premonitory elegance of the poems themselves and the rich paper on which they're printed. The Clemson Digital Press deserves praise for showcasing Moran's work in a format worthy of its accomplishment.