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The Moon Inside
, by Ruth Daigon (Newton's Baby, 1999)
 
Reviewed by Steve Harris

The Moon is ever-present in Ruth Daigon's most recent collection of poems. It possesses great beauty and, in its uneven light, we move as within a dream. However, the Moon also has an implacable face; it is without sentiment as it looks out on the natural world of tooth and claw. It hangs above us, “scarred,” ambiguous. And on this -- our ambiguous plane of existence -- Daigon tells us “incompleteness is all we have.” We must make the best of our hours, “gathering hawthorn berries to soothe the heart.”

Daigon's poetry has an equal measure of berries and briars, with only the voice of the poet to tilt the scale toward the human heart. She accomplishes her balancing act through consistently economical (and musical) use of language. All these elements are on display in the poem “Midnight,” where Daigon rewrites the Psyche myth:

i taste the husk of your voice
hold the bulk of your body
as the glove holds the shape of a hand

the dark expands,
we're tightrope walkers
balancing on silence in this place

After the lovemaking, there is always the morning after. But the speaker is not shocked or disappointed. Reality is embraced in all its facets:

sunlight melts on my hands
and wild geese lather the sky
i hear the stroke of grass on grass
as morning makes an entrance
with fur and feathers in its mouth

(Midnight)

There is much tight-rope walking in this collection. Life is lived on a tight-rope, and this fact, this need for balance, is often reflected in Daigon's poetry. In the poem “Scent of Blood,” Daigon explores the need for balance by taking a naturalistic scene and wrapping it within a dream. The need for tension and balance is again underscored:

Birds wheel down a long November
from bare tree to bald ground.

Animals crazy with life
race under the sun until a sudden

splatter of gunshots
the high whine of blood
and the hunters. They know
the secret of balance

of double sighting targets
of focusing the bullet
at which I've never understood but
what I choose to love.

Along the path a spent cartridge lies half-buried,
a shred of sunlight in its plastic shell.

The dreamer/speaker observes this scene with Artemis-like detachment. She recognizes it, accepts it, but only at a distance from her “couch of grass.” Here at least, the dreamer is in control:

Above ground scrub grass bristles and the scent
of danger's everywhere but I know how safe
a safe distance under earth is and how far.

(Scent of Blood).

In the more personal poem “A Future That Resembles Now,” Daigon confronts her own mortality with balance, again, being the key in the struggle with time, death:

In a continuum of clean sheets
and white nights
I sleep with my watch
secure on my wrist
and balance on
the narrow edge.

Everywhere, she finds that the beauty of the natural world “ambushes” her. She learns to “pat death / like a dog.” The flowers she picks “root in her palm” -- there is an interconnectedness in things -- even with death. She yearns to lie down in the “tall grass / absolutely still / like a stone warmed by the sun / denting the earth.”

But Daigon refuses to let herself off easy. If a gentle sun-baked death is hoped for, death by moonlight must also be considered. In the poem “Every Herring Hangs By Its Own Head,” mortality is an all encompassing net, death an existentialist purgatory or hell. The moon, in its distant silence seems practically mocking, cold as a fish eye:

After they string you up,
you open your gills
like a blessing
a gasp of unity
with all the others
trapped in the same net.

Wrapped in your sheen
with your fishmouth
and unshuttered eye,
you splash in waves of wind
to the rhythm of remembered water.

Parsing the darkness with your finny smell,
you learn the shape of dry space
as the liquid life
shimmers down below.

But everything that cannot swim
begins to drown in sunlight.
Your journey shrinks
as you shrivel.

When evening nails down the day,
you hang cluttering the cool night,
splintering darkness and leaping
at the moon's white thumbnail.

(Every Herring Hangs By Its Own Head).

Daigon is also a poet of historic sensibility. Much of this sensibility comes from her parent's own immigrant background. In the poem “The Cleansing,”a young Siberian woman ritually washes the feet of her husband. Daigon paints a painful scene, where a young woman, in many ways still a child, finishes the washing, while in her mind she senses that this childhood is over, that “Nothing is left / Not a ribbon / Not a thimble.” The figures of husband and wife become mythic in their starkness, as if drawn from Greek Tragedy at its highest, most terrible pitch:

He sits like a boulder in the sun.
His voice makes him taller.
When he bends a listening face to her,
she unknots a smile,
and lifts the basin to her lips.

(The Cleansing).

Daigon can also call forth a nostalgic scene that has its charm, while at the same time steering clear of sentiment. In “Wind-up Gramophone.” the poet employs her love of music, telling us of those old scratchy records and the joy of listening to them:

Music hides in the spaces between tracks
until the wooden stylus strokes the spiral
threading sound through the air.

We sway in gat-toothed wonder at
Cab Calloway's hi-di-hi's and ho-di-ho's
swoon to Galli Curci's velvet velour
“The Last Rose of Summer”,
marvel at Caruso's muscular “Celeste Aida.”

This is a magical moment, where the music is “seductive”; it is a moment that “spills a little island” around the listeners, whose imaginations “float” with the music in the “night's arms.”

Crooners in Vaseline-slicked pompadours
tongue us, the air's dense with red hot mamas
grinding out the blues, Dixieland struts past.

(Windup Gramophone) .

Yet, music can also cause pain, trigger memories. In the poem “Cultural Event,” we are shown the inner conflict of a woman attending a singing performance. (Daigon herself was a professional singer.) In the poem are two women: the singer is clearly German, the one in the audience is Jewish. The music is what connects them. Perhaps they even knew each other before the war. Daigon shifts the poem from the cultural heights and performance back to the realities of the holocaust:

High notes strict as flames
in burning synagogues
singe us to our seats.

Her burnished voice,
her tempos locked in marrow,
the even rhythm of her breath
moves us to the shower

One by one, she ticks off the names of Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and reminds us that beauty is morally neutral, that culture can even kill. The image of torture counterpointed with the aria is devastating. One senses the nearness of Celan, and his mistrust of beauty and art and language when it becomes an extension of the State:

And when she sings of love
hidden circuits warm our bodies
packed in vats of ice.

(Cultural Event).

The poem closes with the singer taking her bows, while back in the audience “a voice hums lullabies of barbed wire.” Balance again asserts itself - albeit with an ironic voice. The cold beauty of performance is in itself heartless. The human heart (and the poet's heart) is instead found at the barbed wire with the victim's barely audible voice, which is probably the most terrible, most necessary song of all.

In “The Moon Inside,” Ruth Daigon sings of both the good and the bad experiences of life with a clear voice, clean lines, and an open eye. The poems in her collection represent the poet's awareness, and understanding, of both an inner and outer light that is -- however incomplete, however mixed with shadows -- enough to illuminate the darkness.