Expansive Poetry & Music Online Contemporary Reprint
If you've missed Richard Moore, we hope this brief sampling
will entice you to look for his work, or
go to Amazon Bookstore online and purchase a copy. A talented
performer, Moore is a far better poet, from the rich dramatic writing
of Empires (1976) to the serio-comic writing of The Mouse Whole (1961;1997),
Bottom is Back(1993) and No More Bottom(1991). Moore's critical
essays, collected in The Rule That Liberates (1995), are
also worth hunting down, as he offers clear, well-researched writing
on matters of great interest and significance to both poets and
readers of poetry. As is true of the best of Expansive poets, he is
both a narrative poet and a writer with considerable lyric gifts, which
he expresses in solidly constructed meters, rhyming forms, and blank
verse of a quality rare in American writers, with a few other exceptions
such as the late Robert Frost and David Mason. This month, we conclude
the introduction of Richard Moore to these pages (but hardly anywhere
else, we hope) with a segment from The Mouse Whole, Moore's
mock epic, largely composed in rhyming couplets, and in trimeter. Begun
under the late Robert Lowell decades ago, The Mouse Whole has
only recently been published in complete form. Negative Capability, Moore's
publisher for this project, has done a great favor to readers and to the reputation
of Richard Moore by bringing back this marvelous work. You can buy this
book from Amazon Books (see Recommended Books section).
The Mouse Whole
An Epic Poem in Five Books
by Richard Moore
Copyright (c) 1961; 1997 by Richard Moore
Negative Capability Press
62 Ridgelawn Dr. E.
Mobile, AL 36608
$16.00 postpaid (224 p), 1996:
Reprinted by Permission of Richard Moore
and by Negative Capability Press
Not to be distributed or reproduced for commercial
or any other reason
without permission of the author and publisher
from Book I
Then scarcely a full-grown mouse
with a sewer instead of a house
(and a dismal sewer at that,
more suited, you'd think, to a rat)--
of my family the youngest member,
for as long as I can remember
I'd longed for a life more pure
than that to be found in a sewer.
I loathed the "unseemly stains"
that float down city drains:
the offal and the sludge
and all the various slimes
that caught in our corner at times
and stuck, and wouldn't budge;
the scraps of tainted meat
dumped down there from the street,
the thousands of rotten eggs,
the tons of coffee dregs,
the spinach, the peas, and the beans,
and the other assorted greens
and potato and orange peels
that my family collected for meals.
O how distasteful it was.
To fast--ah--to fast.
never again to eat.
Until at last
(distasteful though it was)
One has a magnificent feast;
one stuffs and stuffs like a beast.
But O, the guilt, the remorse
one feels, after every course:
one feels disgracefully gluttonous-
then gnaws something beefy or muttonous.
I was a sensitive soul.
My life in that dark hole
offended my delicate taste.
With a Civilization's waste
I remained unsatisfied;
and "Could there be an outside?"
I wondered, and watched those massed
and sluggish waters creep past
and gazed in the dismal distance
and dreamed of another existence.
* * *
We lived in a section of pipe
of the ancient stony type,
deserted long since and neglected.
At a place where sections connected
a crack--or perhaps a fault--
had crumbled the side of the vault
where roots had attempted to cramp
down through to where it was damp
and with slow resistless intent
had broken the solid cement,
as if something within had exploded.
The soil behind had eroded
and left a space recessed
where my family'd established its nest.
O little home
of mousehood mirth
now far away,
is your damp dome
of moldy earth
still there today?
Or have disputes
shaken your vault
with family trouble,
and some dark root's
poked you to rubble?
The current that passed below
was calm as a rule and slow
but carried us little of use.
Downstream it entered a sluice
that was rich in nutritious stuff
but turbulent, noisy and rough;
and only my father much tried
to swim in that treacherous tide
among boards, old boxes, and slats-
and sometimes ravenous rats:
for my brother described to me once
how on one of our father's hunts
a rat leaped out of a pail
and devoured half of his tail.
He was lucky to flee with his life
back home to his squeaking wife.
It was this catastrophic mission
that had ruined his disposition
and, my brother continued slyly,
made him curse his family so vilely
and throw such terrible fits
poor mother'd go out of her wits.
Her behavior had to be wily
never to anger or bother
our morbidly sensitive father.
O, dear father,
though doubtless I should praise you
since it was my sweet lot
by you to be begot,
I'm sure it won't amaze you,
but O, dear father,
somehow I'd rather not.
Those who in a spasm
of hot enthusiasm
thoughtlessly beget us:
how soon do they regret us?
The unseen drop they gave,
the driblet they presented,
a millionfold augmented,
returns, as from the grave.
what made you turn so pale?
Was it my long new tail?
* * *
[The mouse discovers an envelope in a drain where the family go to
worship and is inspired to use it as a boat to sail through the sewer
to the fabled mystical ocean. After an argument with his family, we see
him setting out. -- R.M.]
from Book II
Up the tunnel the round faint glimmer
of home grew smaller and dimmer--
like a moon backing out of the sky,
no one watching on earth knew why,
receding from night so sadly--
as if someone had treated her badly.
My family was there on the shore,
but visible now no more
as the dark closed in all around,
the dark into which I was bound.
And even that glimmer would go
when the current's relentless flow
had carried me down to the bend.
Was there light at the other end?
But O, how it now seemed so far,
where sunlight and moonlight are
--or are they? (I suddenly thought)
and here I am, helplessly caught
in a stream going nowhere at all....
Did I hear my mother call?
They were there--still were--in the gloom --
or were they? You had to assume--
assume that the things about you
went right on existing without you
in a world that would still continue,
though vanished without and within you
as you wandered far and wide
in an envelope lost on the tide,
attempting to picture your past....
And then it eludes you at last,
and you feel so hopeless without it
you begin in despair to doubt it
and speculate long and darkly
on theories deriving from Berkeley.
(Worse yet: when you don't know that name,
you can have those thoughts just the same.)
But you have to believe that it sleeps
in its own and your dark deeps,
in the depths of your gurgling brain
like a family of mice in a drain,
and accept this sleeping reality
in its non-existent finality--
a conception no mind can avoid
according to someone named Freud.
You had to accept the dregs
of coffee, the rotten eggs,
the spinach, the peas, and the beans,
and the other assorted greens,
and the morsels of tainted meat
swept down from an unknown street...
O those jovial family meals,
those delicious orange peels
that we sometimes had for dessert....
When I lay somewhere bleeding and hurt,
who would come to staunch my bleeding?
And what would I do about feeding,
now I was drifting into
a world that I'd never been to?
O those wonderful orange peelings!
And I cursed my delicate feelings
that had driven me into that gloom
that would doubtless turn into my tomb--
or my crypt--I was wondering which,
when my haunch had a furious itch:
a flea--and I wiggled to scratch it
and darted a paw to catch it
before it could hide in my coat--
but I nearly upset the boat.
While musing so sadly and direly,
I'd forgotten my vessel entirely;
and that magical Heaven-sent gift
in which I'd determined to drift
courageously and alone
down into that dark unknown
had almost ceased to buoy me
because a flea could annoy me.
The thought made me shiver and sweat:
how easy it was to forget.
If it hadn't been for my tail,
that flea would have ended my sail;
but thanks to that organ's agility
and the envelope's flexibility,
I'd kept on an even keel:
its delicate sense of feel
extending deep in the stern
detected the slightest turn,
the minutest sway or dip
of my fragile and papery ship;
and while I was unaware
of all but that flea in my hair
till I found the whole vessel tipping,
my tail was tenaciously gripping
and counteracted the list
with a deft and powerful twist
in the opposite direction
which righted my craft to perfection.
I not only steadied the hull with it:
I even found I could scull with it.
O tail, O tail,
thou fulcrum and thou lever;
thou rudder and thou oar;
thou hinge upon the door
of my great squeaking endeavor,
which opens, as I hope,
into a bright beyond;
thou secret bond
between this envelope
and him who rides it;
thou means by which he guides it
thou thing devoid of hairs;
thou secret sense
subtler and more intense
than all intelligence;
guide me to what I seek!
Who said that the flesh was weak?
That flesh was of no avail,
that flesh was doomed to fail?
He couldn't have had a tail.
* * *
How long I went on without light
through that roaring and hideous night,
that awful invisible vision
of monstrous shapes in collision
with hollow booms and crashes
and ominous nearby splashes
in that wild and capricious current
with my tail as the only deterrent
from getting myself overturned,
was something I never discerned:
I had neither the means to measure
the passage of time, nor the leisure,
but sat there and ached and sweated
with my hair getting constantly wetted
by the gummy spray and the spume
shooting out of that seething gloom.
* * *
Then grimly I spat out a curse
at the sickening universe:
"O come with your foul malignity,
death! I wait with dignity,
wait in my dripping hair."
And then in a wave of despair,
I yielded myself to the night....
But what did I see? A light.
It seemed suffused over stones.
I became aware of my groans
in the midst of that cataract's roar,
and I silently sculled for the shore
beginning so hugely to loom
like a ghost from the depths of a tomb.
My God, am I dead already,
I thought, as I entered an eddy
that swung my vessel around?
My God, and what if I've drowned?
Did I hear a Heavenly psalm?
The waters were growing calm.
Is that light from some Heavenly fire?
Do I hear a celestial choir?
O God, I've certainly drowned.
And then I ran aground.
The shore had a gentle slope.
I climbed from my envelope
and drew her up on the land;
and I tried to understand,
as I sat there confused and alone
on the solid, though slippery, stone,
what refuge this was I had found.
Could it really be that I'd drowned?
Was I still in the same existence?
The cataract roared in the distance.
Yes, still in the depths of the night.
But above from a fathomless height
a faintly luminous ray
seemed to feel out its airy way
and, pallid and weakened, fall
down the length of a cavernous wall
and expire in darkness below.
A sort of breeze seemed to blow;
my snout felt its gentle pressure,
and the odors it carried seemed fresher
than the stench from the stagnant foam
that had welled up around our home.
Near here was where father'd collected
the food I'd so often rejected.
Had he known that the turbulent roar
was calmer along the shore?
Had he come to this place and sat?
And where had he met with the rat?
I swallowed with sudden fear.
There behind me--what did I hear?
I darted around in fright.
Had something there moved to the right?
My furry chest was pounding
as I stared in the darkness surrounding:
the bodiless wall of the dark.
Something moved. A shadow. A spark.
Two sparks. Then the sparks were eyes
in a shape of enormous size.
I wanted to run to escape
that horrible monstrous shape,
those glaring and ravenous eyes...
but I lacked even strength to rise.
Yet the thing was advancing closer.
I worked my mouth, but, "O, Sir..."
was all I could manage to say.
"Well look what's happed by the way:
A mouse. Just calmly sitting.
I squat here and tend to my knitting
and watch the world go by,
and as soon as I shut one eye
to rest my bones with a snooze:
A mouse. You taking a cruise?
That's dangerous. Where you from, boy?
Aw come on....You deaf and dumb, boy?...
Aw tell papa something nice.
I've a taste for the tales of you mice-
that's a pun, boy--or should I say, 'girlie'?
You look like your hair'd be curly
if you'd ever let it get dry."
I struggled to make a reply.
It was hopeless. I seemed entranced
as the apparition advanced.
Great whiskers appeared. Then teeth.
Then a powerful jawbone beneath.
A face drawn into a frown.
Huge claws. A body all brown
and furry and--horribly fat!
"Aw come on. Say hello to the rat.
You frightened? You do look nervous.
It's only Old Nick--at your service."
He crossed a paw to his breast,
and as if he'd just addressed
a large and admiring crowd,
he ceremoniously bowed
and smiled with mock humility,
a picture of perfect gentility.
* * *
[Thus begins the first of the mouse's adventures en route to the
mystical ocean. Other even stranger adventures follow after he has
reached it. - R.M.
Don't miss Richard Moore's other material, now in the archives section (if you don't find it there, it will be there shortly).
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