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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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There are 800,000 neatly arranged written documents in the Moore papers at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia (she was trained as a librarian and kept her correspondence and clippings in alphabetic files). One can never guess quite what she will be writing. One whole section of a notebook from the 1960s is devoted to descriptions of baseball players' athletic grace, as she recounts bare-handed catches by Mickey Mantle and home runs parked by Roger Maris, while next to this are notes on the intricacies of the debate between Lamarck and Darwin.

Who was Marianne Moore? Her eyes reveal a curious but kindhearted woman who retained a child's alertness in her old age. Moore went to parties, knew many writers and artists of her time, excelled as an editor of important periodicals. It would be wonderful if one day a new biography were to appear that could integrate those aspects of her life with her relationship to her religion, including her local Presbyterian church. (Some remnants of Moore's Brooklyn congregation exist. While visiting the Lafayette Presbyterian church in June of 2006, I met an elderly African American woman who remembered Marianne with great fondness.)

Moore was no recluse. She was involved in the social realm and had strong political and religious interests in addition to literary and artistic ones. Nothing escaped her. She saw humanity and the animals as part of God's creation, and yet her poetry opens into a vast social world. Her poetry is unusual in that she researched topics, often spending more than a year on a single poem. Each one has to be read like a Sudoku puzzle that takes a year to solve. Her kind of art—high modernist for sure!—doesn't attract everyone; some readers will be instantly repelled. That's fine. There's no obligation to read Marianne Moore. But critics and biographers who interpret her life and work are obliged to respect the resistant particulars of their subject.

Kirby Olson teaches philosophy, literature, and creative writing at SUNY-Delhi.

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