Leah Fritz surveys a generous selection of poems by Stanley Moss and finds work that is surprising and sometimes shocking – but is always perfectly controlled
I first read Stanley Moss’s poetry in the New Yorker when I lived in the U.S. 30 years ago. I liked his work then and my appreciation has grown since reading his new collection, It’s About Time.
Moss grew up in New York’s borough of Queens. I spent my early childhood in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan, which all New Yorkers refer to as ‘the City,’ as if it’s the only one in the world. It’s in the sonnet, ‘A Kid in a “Record Crowd” ’, which I quote in its entirety:
It was a little like what I feel now walking around the City remembering the old buildings where new construction is going on. It was a little like getting older. I remember my fear as a child being pushed by tens of thousands at Yankee Stadium Memorial Day, afraid of falling, being pushed over and squashed, not being able to find my father, some shouting, some singing in victory, then packed in the subway back to Queens, lucky American, far from the cattle cars, the ovens, franks and mustard on my lips.
Stanley Moss has scary youthful memories of what happened in Europe before and during World War II. He rebels against the cruel and senseless rivalries in the world, as in this poem, ‘Song of Jerusalem Neighbours’
… Your laundry hanging or drying on the ground looks like mine. My prayer shawl is invisible. I’ll be buried in it – your Islamic robe covers you with clouds. I look at your wife’s red bra, you look at my wife’s black lace panties…
with its extraordinary ending:
Jehovah and Allah are lollipops for the motherfuckers who find war sexually attractive.
And in ‘The Gambler’:
Mercy’s a wild card. Now I play numbers with fallen angels. (God knows what the devil feels.) The Lord will not settle for a little human regard…
And later, I cheat at cards Yahweh deals.
‘The Gambler’ is a poem that rhymes. Some of Moss’s poems are formal; some are not. He seems to follow wherever the poem within him leads. In ‘A Rose’: …Be a horse. Then you can discover/ a valley, the taste of a mare’s nipple,/ your coat moist with her three-year-old blood…’ And, Our earth and sun don’t matter an onion/ to dark matter, places without address.
His ‘Children’s Song’ rhymes as children’s poetry should, and begins: ‘I wish I was two dogs, then I could play with me.’ (I wonder why the quotation marks here; maybe he heard a kid say that?) It ends:
…I could eat a bone, one, two, three, and never be lonely, never be lonely.
Among the many poems in It’s About Time are those dedicated to friends and fellow poets – Dannie Abse and Christopher Middleton among them. These are moving, loving works. What I find extraordinary in Moss are his exquisite control of his material and his ability to surprise, even to shock, but always out of a love of the human animal, our natural parts, the way we use them.
There is a ‘Birthday Wishes’ poem addressed to someone 99 years old. Moss, himself, was born in 1925. The penultimate poem here is ‘Ubuntu’, a South African word defined as ‘the essential dignity of every human being’. The poem ends:
Jefferson was wrong: it is not blood but Ubuntu that is the manure of freedom.
It’s About Time is a hefty book, 176 pages including a list of first lines. It’s by an angry young man who has lived long enough to know what he’s angry about. God grant him more years; more poems.