Julie Moore’s Scandal of Particulars: An Open Path

Particular Scandals book cover

by Ed Davis on September 20, 2013

A Prize-Winning Poet

I met Julie Moore at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in 2009 when I led the afternoon poetry sessions, subbing at the last minute for John Drury. Julie was the Judson Jerome scholarship winner that year and had already published her chapbook Election Day. Not only did I find out during the week what a wonderful poet she is but also how generously she helps other poets. So I wasn’t surprised when she published the full-length collection Slipping out of Bloom the following year. In the meantime her poems have been widely-published in numerous journals from Southern Review to Christian Century, anthologized and nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Just when I thought she couldn’t get any better, Cascade Books just published another full-length collection, Particular Scandals, which is her most mature work so far: accessible, entertaining and spiritually profound.

Out of Suffering, Wholeness

The book contains three untitled sections. The first section immerses us deeply in poems about loss, illness and healing, as she and her husband faced serious health challenges while still in their forties. Among many fine poems, one I found most touching, “Prayer Shawl,” focused on a woman who, after losing two of her four sons (and husband) in a single year, almost lost a third to suicide. This surviving son broke his spine trying to hang himself; now he sits with his mother every day “fashioning shawl after need-/thick shawl, praying/for those, like me,/to once again be whole.” Although facing such suffering as this mother and son endured, the poems are by no means relentless downers. In “Recovery,” for instance, Julie uses the wonderful image of bees, “persistent as repeated pleas/ . . . tasting grace as insistent as the tune they hum,” to help her deal with continuing pain from seven surgeries.

As if Julie realizes she’s given the reader a strong dose of mortality—and lessons to be learned from it—the second section includes mostly nature poems, celebratory and healing. These include, among other things, poems about a very happy dog, pagan dancing in the rain, a barefoot husband-gardener and, once again, bees, but this time as “Hell’s Angels.” I love the image of them “in their striped jackets,/black helmets and snug gloves,/[cruising] through coreopsis/while their pollen passengers hug them tight.” Delightful stuff.

Pilgrims of the Particular

All of which builds to the satisfying final section synthesizing the previous two. Interspersed among poems dealing with tragedy and abuse and are those filled with healing from both natural and supernatural sources. The wonderfully life-affirming “Afterlife” concerns a World War II veteran, raised an orphan, who experienced “a childhood with nerve amid the world’s first breakdown” (great line!) He now raises horses, “each foal a scandal of particular beauty.” Moore repeats this striking (italicized) phrase, or some version of it, several times throughout the book, gaining resonance with each usage. It first appears in one of the epigraphs from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in reference to Christ’s having been born, “improbably, ridiculously,” into his particular time and place as “the scandal of particularity.” To both Dillard and Moore, the phrase comes to mean this world now (“the only world that I, particularly, know,” says Dillard): the sensory world of experience and meaning from which both of these fine writers craft their work.

Remember Blessing

Section Three contains perhaps the book’s most heart-breaking poem “Voice,” in which the mother of a twenty-year-old suicide later stumbles on a voicemail he left, with a shattering final line, the effect of which I won’t spoil by quoting. It also contains some of the funniest, most whimsical and light-filled poems. Who could resist reading a poem with the title “Will you let me write about my love for my child”? (I say yes.) The collection ends movingly with two very different and deeply spiritual poems: “Remember Blessing” and “Window.” The former is a stunning summation of the book’s themes, expanding outward to include “fire-bombed streets” and “screams of children/fettered to the long arm/of a godless law,” concluding with a list of the author’s own blessings, to which we can relate. The book could’ve easily ended on that note—find hope where there is none—but she saved the best for last, “Opening,” which brought me to my knees.

The Path to Handling Loss

Too easily labeled a “Christian poet,” Julie writes poems which are spiritual, even theological at times, but never in-your-face preachy. Only the most Christianity-averse reader will be disturbed; this Buddhist Baptist was hardly ever uncomfortable, and I found myself trusting the poet to tell me the unsentimental, unvarnished truth about suicide, abuse, illness and mortality while affirming life in the here and now. Eternity was almost always found in “particulars.”

As I age, I increasingly require literature that unflinchingly helps me face the Big Issues. “A Clear Path,” near the book’s end, deals with an overzealous farmer-neighbor who, while Julie watches, whips out a chainsaw and cuts down a post to gain easier access to his fields—the same post where the poet watched a vulture she once wrote about. “A clear path,” Julie writes, “often means loss.” Amen. Particular Scandals, as all of Julie Moore’s work, helps me face inevitable losses by balancing them with what’s most meaningful and loving at the root of life.

(A version of this review appeared in Meredith Sue Willis’s Books for Readers Newsletter.)

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