Big Windows, by Lauren Moseley. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018. $15.95, 72 pages.
Animals—a jackal, a bear, a panther, a bobcat, a coyote—stalk through the poems in Lauren Moseley’s remarkable, unsettling recent collection Big Windows (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018). At the same time, her poems are determinedly contained in their sense of place, many of them evoking rural North Carolina. In this manner, her work produces an internal tension between the wildness of the animals that invade these poems and the otherwise sleepy American domesticity of their settings. The implication is that something wild and restless plagues the American pastoral from within.
Most of the animals that feature in Big Windows are large predators. As such, they serve as vehicles for Moseley’s probing interest in the themes of power and fear. When the speaker conflates herself or otherwise identifies with predatory animals, power or a kind of wildness—one often contained or frustrated by the poems’ domestic settings—comes into view. Differently, in cases when the animal is entirely separate from the speaker, the dramatic situation becomes infused with fear. To take an example of the former: in “Something Like Belief” Moseley writes, “The animal in my chest lopes through dry grasses. / It is neither fowl nor cattle nor creeping thing.” The same poem hints at the speaker’s unruly capaciousness, the “gallons of air in each lung” tethered to a daring promise: “You may find me wicked yet.” In “Tail” the same identification with potent animality recurs: “I dreamed / I had a tail like a bobcat.” In such instances the speaker seems to feel or seek out a sense of inner strength waiting to be unleashed. On the other hand, “Biopsy” reimagines receiving bad medical news as an encounter with a bear in the wild. Here the animal is outside the speaker, who, waiting in the fetal position, feels only terror: “The bear’s breath was on my neck / and I knew the bite would follow.”
Sometimes, too, these identities and their attendant emotions blend together, as in “Coyote,” in which the titular animal, while outside the speaker, gradually becomes almost coterminous with her:
Coyote see the inside
The eyes behind the lids
Find in them desire
Yes I’m older I’m not finished
Coyote please come closer
This poem brings us closer to the real work that animals perform as agents in Moseley’s writing: in inviting and creating extreme, border-like emotions, they force the speaker (and us as readers) closer to the mysterious essence of what it means to be alive, trapped in a body—the central subject of these poems. In this sense, even fear, because it awakens us to mortality and to our own hunger to live, can be a boon. That is, even while serving as a reminder of one’s relative powerlessness, fear can shock us into a recognition of some of the limitations against which we wrestle simply because by virtue of being embodied selves. Thus Moseley writes in “Figment” of “[t]he need for fear as distant as the pack of hounds.” Later, in “Real,” a short poem recalling rural childhood, the speaker insists, “You should know by know / I love the fear that fills my body / Would call it my friend” . . . . In “Time passes but it does not move forward,” Moseley describes “speeding on the beltway, caught / between a truck and a concrete barrier,” a situation many of us are familiar with, and one that produces fear because it intrudes into everyday life as a sudden reminder of mortality and the possibility of impending death. By comparing such a moment to a child’s ride on a carousel, Moseley hints brilliantly at the fact that this predicament is in fact ever-present: “When the ride ends and I step off, / I feel earth spin beneath me still.”
If the poems in this collection work to instill a sense of disquiet and frustration at human limitation, they also search out an answer to these challenges. “Will,” one of the last poems in Big Windows, encapsulates this sense of hunger as the speaker stands before a “waterfall curtain” at the mouth of a cave: “put your hand through / that other life // put your body through / and have it.” A desperate longing for “that other life,” whatever form it might take, animates many of Moseley’s poems. In “Romance,” the speaker gathers up hailstones that melt immediately in her palms, and reflects on the transcendent unity they seem, in their abundance and insubstantiality, to both intimate and foreclose: “Heat and ice. Earth and sky. Stop saying why / I can’t have both. I saw them together. / I almost had them.”
Does the solution simply lie within the self? At times in Broken Windows Moseley comes close to insisting that it does, though these often comprise the weaker moments in her work, as in the aphoristic banality of the concluding lines of “The Woods Within”: “Despite every weakness you’ve ever felt / it is up to you to save yourself.” Moseley’s poems are most effective when they resist easy answers; often, this involves a turning from the natural world and animals to the social world, to the linked spheres of family, culture, and religion. In these poems the speaker pries for footholds, foundations for belief or assurance; the speaker’s restiveness becomes a feature rather than an obstacle to be overcome, and even if no final pronouncement arrives, the reader is struck by the candor and erudition evident in the poet’s examinations of the given.
“Mary,” a poem about a statuette of the Virgin Mary that the speaker and her husband place in their kitchen window, balances the speaker’s secular dismissal of religious claims—“we would not announce that we believed”—with both her willingness to accede to family traditions and with a longing for something sacramental, something tinged by the sacred. At her wedding, the speaker recounts, her father spoke “a prayer that at times made us wince” (here again, the speaker’s concession to the demands of family are evident), but “still the weather put glory in our minds.” In this sense, some of these poems are what Flannery O’Connor would call “Christ-haunted,” featuring curt dismissals of spiritual possibility that are themselves besieged by a wish for the transcendent, one revealed not only by the poems’ words but by their mood. But so far from rendering the poems failures, this tension can make them sing, make them memorable. Consider the last four stanzas of “Easter,” to me the poem that best captures the book’s abiding concerns:
to be truly present
in my body is to be trapped inside
an execution chamber
The end of the body must be
the end full stop but I wish
the body were like an eggshell
Is belief something you can
Is that the difference
between a yellow yolk for eating
and a feathered thing
Here the refusal to believe (“The end of the body must be / the end full stop”) is quickly cast into stark relief by what follows it—conjecture about the nature and purpose of faith. The central metaphor of an egg hatching is sharpened by the allusion, in the poem’s final verse, to that famous line of Emily Dickinson’s, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” A hope beyond the end of the material body is what this poem (and indeed this collection) searches out, and this hope springs directly from the theme of entrapment which recurs here again, and all the proposed cures to which—metaphors for wildness, the figures of animals, the pull of the sacred—scatter throughout the collection like potential lifelines. One poem concludes with a startling image of the freedom envisaged through such symbols: “When I rise and break the surface, / my lungs expand like wings.”
The volume’s final poem, “Thanks be to Big Windows,” attempts to erase the distinction between inner and outer, nature and the human world, in a manner that purports to solve the dilemmas presented by many of the other poems in the book:
inside and outside
the same if you squint
when I woke up in the morning
I knew exactly what I was
The use of “what” and not “who” in the final line is significant, indicating a final reversion to materialism. Where earlier, in “Easter,” the speaker insisted that “everything is boundaries,” in this last poem the boundaries dissolve, and everything is reducible to matter, albeit in differentiable clusters. This sentiment fits uneasily at best alongside the yearning and tension of the previous poems. If the answer to all these questions is simply to erase the division separating inside from outside, self from world, human from nature–then from where emerges the speaker’s insistent hunger to overcome or surpass the world and the self as constituted? “Thanks Be to Big Windows,” titled as a form of prayer, but to an idea rather than a God, may seek to reconcile us to our earthly state, but as assertive coda, the poem cannot so easily undo the lasting impression conjured by the questing, self-doubting spirit that imbues the rest of this collection, and helps give it lasting merit.
Tim DeJong received his Ph.D. in English at Western University and currently works as a Lecturer in the English Department at Baylor University. His first book, Hope and Aesthetic Utility in Modernist Literature, is forthcoming soon from Routledge. His poems have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and have appeared in Rattle, Roanoke Review, Booth, Kindred, Nomadic Journal, Common Ground Review, and other journals. He tweets very occasionally at @tadejong.