You never enter the same river twice, according to Heraclitus. Likewise, in Jennifer Moore’s debut collection, The Veronica Maneuver, you never enter the same poem twice—or at least, thanks to her vellities and sleight of hand, the world has become defamiliarized, rearranged. As have the metaphors, diction, and incantatory hymns of the poems themselves. One cannot return to the imaginative space of a first reading, a first encounter, the unveiling. In the collection’s opening, “As a Debutante I Adjusted My Hatpin,” Moore writes:
In the year of Our Lord the Electric Chair,
in the year of the Boozehound and the Unhooked Corset,
a lick of salt troubled my tongue.
A lick troubled me into telling the green girls
How to swing from the hundred-footed maple
And the drowning woman how to sink into the river’s bed.
As with all things, the difficulty lies
in making maneuvers looks effortless.
These maneuvers enliven her fiercely lyrical, intricate, and finely-wrought—like “entire fields of air”—poems. The double entendre of the title concerns cloth: one kind as succor—the veil Saint Veronica offered Jesus on his way to Calvary, to wipe his face—and one kind as lure—the cape the matador uses to draw the bull.
Throughout, Moore wields metaphors like Dickinsonian knives. She carves deeply felt, oneiric landscapes that both puzzle and enchant, through implosions of scale, recursion, and slowly-building tropes that gain power and speed through association, echo, and their resonance with companion poems. This is the Debutante’s Handbook to the New Lyric, a Comprehensive Guide to the Eighth Wonder of the World—that is, life beyond materialism—and a sourcebook of white magic and ars memoria.
Here, we are invited to modernity’s panorama, forewarned that “belief’s an enemy of fact.” How, then, to organize our thoughts, which shape our perceptions indelibly? In the place-making of this collection, a Stevensian site of mind-making: carnivalesque but hemmed in by the curtains of a theater, a theater absurd but never cruel. Moore writes, in “Saint Veronica Has Something To Say (I)”:
I resemble you. Like a veil
hiding nothing, we wail wide.
We wait for the fruit
to be set in our empty mouths.
But the city empties out,
and a swallow beats away with my heart.
As if in a version of Oz where we have to barter back the body parts we’ve lost, the speaker is both seeker and Virgilian guide; her lines both signposts and song.
“I’ll withdraw all inflection from the giving,” she promises. The resulting even-handedness resembles the stoicism of a fortune-teller, for whom the fates are neither kind nor cruel. Her tone is engaged yet suspicious of pathos—“this pitch of tenderness will turn us all to fools.”
The affectual gestures are nevertheless devotional acts. She writes, in “The Quiet Game,” a long poem that comprises the book’s second section: “If I could, for you I’d spin / a whole house of silk from my body.” The poem plays on the game parents assign to children when they want a quiet house. It occupies an interstitial place in the book, suggesting the poem’s role as ballast, and the poet’s role of one who waits: “Around the house I walk softly, I carry a huge ice pick. / I pull my body by the lobe of its waiting ear.”
In this collection’s chain of signification, meaning is twice removed. Association, abstracted: “In the morning, some things appear // while others vanish. When I cry wolf, I cry spider / and spider, wolf.” The speaker’s voice is its own shadow, the Janus-face of capital, the lyric, the soul. “The swallow sings to spit, then spit sings to swallow. / What does the trick’s what the trick does to herself.”
In “Hello, Goodbye,” Moore writes: “Hear that? A baby cries // through someone else’s monitor. A baby cries through // another radio, someone turns a corner / down. A page listens…. it’s not a logic that gets us, but the wick // of a feeling.” Plying the relationship between the poem as originary correspondence (sound and word) to a series of effects, memory becomes a kind of whodunnit trace that, once erased, signals the magician’s crowning touch: “Nix on memory, though: it hides. Name of the game. As soon as we try to conjure last August, it’s gone.”
The Veronica Maneuver thrums with the erotic and the macabre. The multivalent resonances culminate in the paradox of a coup de grace in “Our Lady of the Marvelous Wrists,” named for Conchita Cintrón:
I killed my first kill in the slaughterhouse.
Stabbing oxen with a dagger was my drill.
One’s eyes must be open to one’s own horrors.
One’s eyes must be open to one’s own persona:
With training I became the Blue-Eyed Torera…
This poem pairs with the earlier “Instructions for Conchita Cintrón, 1933,” a poem that contains similar language, even with some shared lines, but it’s written in third person, as instruction (“To become the Blue-Eyed Torera,/ make your first kill in the slaughterhouse”) rather than persona. Tellingly, the first of the two declares, “Be your own maestro.” The latter as conductor of the first; the first a performance by the latter.
The poet displays her formidable skill at deftly inverting economies of scale. “I will go down // and land in the white umbrella / that falls when I fall, will be // a thousand letters in a jar.” And later: “When the reasoning brain / returns, you’ll come back, too, // but I’m the bit you’ll be missing … I’ll be carried away by the fairies … with one wish—Little prison, little mouth, / let me find a way to enclose you.” Moore revises the modernist project of containing the infinite using brilliant metonymies: “I make of your body an eye.”
“Disambiguation: On Desire” ties together this collection’s taxonomies, and registers of docent, lover, Lady Fortune, bullfighter, and handmaid (one of several) to the Lord:
For arrest, see Cardiac or Crime. For the place
you’ll be taken to, the little place of forgetting, see Oubliette…
Hope, or half the bird’s bone, is what you’ll get
when you arrive at Wish (for the science
of hidden message, see Stenography), and if wishing
doesn’t work, try the ancient form of night prayer (Nocturne).
This is the desire to accurately decipher, to venture past the impossible page, where love is one of several names for zero. Much of this art has to do with respect for the materials, and time: “Day’s not a sieve; it’s an altar.”
While for some readers, the ineluctable quality of the speaker’s voice—suggestive to the point of embodying metaphor—may at times disarm, the sharp wit, aphoristic subtlety (“Without sex, there’s allegory”), and delivered sense makes this a collection worth exploring from cover to cover, as well as desultorily.
The final poem, “In the Drawer of my Wooden Pillow, I Found a Leaf,” suggests a meta-theme that goes far deeper than individual poems, enacting all the while a kind of reverse creation story—one that culminates not with the twinned species of creation, but a structural collapse born of undifferentiated sounds (the birth, not of creation, but music?):
…so I un-stitch the spine, sew eight leaves into one,
and deeper than sound could ever dive
I drown my book in its own noise.
Twenty-two cards in the Tarot deck constitute the Major Arcana. In The Veronica Maneuver they are re-imagined as thirty-three exquisite poems. Whistle while you work; spin golden thread while you wait; sing for a thousand nights; and, rather than merely anticipate, create a “supersonic love song,” leaving the scene of mass masquerade, stage aflame, with the flaring cape—and wry humility—of a maker-matador.
Top photo © Javier Corbo
Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, the Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, and her criticism in Boston Review, Quarterly Conversation, Barzakh Magazine, and elsewhere. Co-founder of Matter, a literary journal of political poetry and commentary, she lives in Chicago.