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I Too Dislike It

By Harriet Staff

How dull and uninspired your morning would be without this phantasmagoria of a review by Parul Sehgal, of a new Marianne Moore biography called Holding On Upside Down. It sounds like a hit and we can’t wait to read it.

Biographies, wrote Auden, are “always superfluous and usually in bad taste.” I’m inclined to believe he’d make an exception in the case of Holding On Upside Down, a new book about his great friend Moore. It’s deliberate and sensitive—“creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,” in Moore’s words—capable of containing her many contradictions, most notably her desires for recognition and privacy.

Moore left behind thirty-five thousand letters but few clues to her personality. She strove, as Frost wrote, “to keep the overcurious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters,” and she largely succeeded. Her biographer Linda Leavell admits, “Eight years and six hundred draft pages into the project, I realized that while I had come to know [Moore’s mother and brother] Mary and Warner rather well, I still knew little about Marianne.” Eventually, Leavell determines that the poems are “the best record of her inner life,” and turns to them as a primary source of information—with mixed results.

She reads the poems as gnomic journal entries. Thus “The Fish,” an inky philosophical whorl, becomes a coded reference to a rift in the family, an interpretation based on a single image: water driving “a / wedge / of iron through the iron edge / of the cliff.” The book falters when Leavell goes this far, and she frequently goes this far. She comes to conclusions like (and I shudder to type this): “The most significant legacy of Marianne’s kindergarten experience is her almost instant affinity, when she encountered it in the early twentieth century, for the work of other moderns.”

But Leavell’s reliance on the poems also allows her to stalk more interesting quarries, like how Moore’s familial history shaped her desire for secrecy and self-erasure. It’s a gothic story, right down to the names—appropriately enough, our enigmatic poet was descended from a family called Riddle. Her parents separated before she was born. She never met her father, who suffered from religious mania and hacked off his right hand. Marianne; her brother, Warner; and her mother, Mary, lived together in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a tight trio, with a private language. Mary insisted on the unity of the family; there would be no growing up, no defection. “We are like people interrupted in love-making the minute any outside persons come in,” she gloated.

Read on at Book Forum.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, November 6th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.