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Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
Linda Leavell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
480 pp., $30.00

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Kirby Olson


"To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity"

What's missing from accounts of Marianne Moore's life & works?

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Was she a nun without a habit? Leavell writes, "Neither at home nor apparently with her friends did she indicate that she did or did not share [her mother] Mary's religious faith." While Moore's brother and her mother were devoutly Christian, Leavell writes, "Old Testament allusions far outnumber New Testament ones in her work." The import of this isn't clear: for Christians, of course, the Old Testament is Scripture as much as the New. In any case, Leavell's eye for Christian allusions isn't acute. In "The Steeple-Jack" Moore centers an entire town's activity upon a church. The poem "Rosemary" gives us the herb "Springing from stones beside the sea / the height of Christ when he was thirty-three."

Leavell never mentions these details and many others in the same vein. But the evidence of Moore's deep engagement with Christianity is apparent throughout her work. Her beautiful, densely textured poem "Marriage," one of her most celebrated, cites Presbyterian Puritan Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest (published in 1650) as crucial to an understanding of marriage. Her war poem, "Keeping Their World Large," has clear references to Jesus and his disciples, who were willing to sacrifice themselves for us (there is an echo of Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic"). In the poem, she describes the rows of white crosses at Arlington Cemetery. Moore's poem "Melancthon" refers to the Lutheran reformer. And so on.

To be fair to Leavell, she has plenty of company among Moore scholars. An omnibus volume of critical readings of Moore's poetry mentions only one article to date (1990) that had bothered to illuminate the religious aspect of Moore's work (eighty years after her first poems were published). It's a brief and amateurish piece published by a Presbyterian pastor who was not trained as a literary critic. After some twenty books of literary criticism and hundreds of articles, there is only one newish article devoted to Moore's friendship with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (ignored in Leavell's biography). Let's suppose this survey missed some fugitive items. Even so, the gap is astonishing.

The point is not to make Moore into a Christian apologist—something she patently was not. Rather, it is to understand Moore on her own terms, in her faith, in her everyday life, across the board. This Leavell persistently refuses to do. With inadvertently comical tenacity, she gives her subject a makeover. Leavell explains to us that "the socialist ideals of Marianne's college years" were "partly realized" in the Moores' multiracial Brooklyn neighborhood, where they treated each person with "equal solicitude." Noting that the Moores routinely brought "their own shopping bags" when getting groceries and such, Leavell hopes to signal an ardent interest in conservation.

Well, yes, Moore briefly embraced socialism when she was in college at Bryn Mawr. Back in her own milieu—as Molesworth makes clear in his biography—she became a life-long Republican. Early on she favored Taft. She adored Herbert Hoover. She wore a Nixon pin on her lapel in the 1960s. It is possible to read in the Letters of Marianne Moore that she hated Roosevelt and in one letter compared him to Adolf Hitler. Oh, dear. In her seventies, Moore was an ardent supporter of the war in Vietnam. Many fellow poets loathed Moore's support of the military. Randall Jarrell, who admired Moore's poetry, cited her World War II poem "In Distrust of Merits" as proof that she was a backwards provincial in her politics; like many 21st-century readers, he had no sympathy for the Christian tradition of Just War.

And this takes us back to the stunning neglect of the orthodox religious dimension of Moore's poetry, consistent with a decades-long attempt to shoehorn Moore into the secular modernist canon. The reality was more complicated, and more interesting. Looking at photographs of Moore in the biographies, one is struck by the lacy collars and the neatly pulled-back bun of hair, and how the hair is often covered with a hat. And yet, there are avant-garde nuances. She wears something like a pantsuit in one photograph. It is smart and yet old-fashioned, even for the period. Moore is always "pulled together." She wears ankle-length dresses with stockings pulled up so that not a trace of leg is visible, and only the face can be seen. There is tremendous alertness in the eyes, and a kind of knowing smile that would seem foreign on the faces of Mennonite women from the period. Moore was one of a kind.

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