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H.D. Moe (1937-2013): Fluxional, Vehicular and Transitive


by Jack Foley


In early July 2013, the poetry community learned that poet H.D. Moe was living at Salem Lutheran Extended Care Faculty in Oakland. Moe had been seriously ill with liver cancer for some time. He was now in hospice care. Alameda Poet Laureate Mary Rudge suggested that H.D. Moe should be given a medal for his many achievements in the art of poetry. I enthusiastically agreed, and together we planned an event at which David could be given the award. We fund-raised in the community for the event and received far more than was necessary to pay for the medal—which, as it turned out, was donated by Natica and Richard Angilly. Among the people donating money were three poets laureate: Robert Hass, Mary Rudge, and Al Young. The money we raised ($560) was given to H.D. Moe, who exclaimed that it was the most money he had ever received for a poetry reading!

Hearing about the project, people began to send me comments and poems about H.D. Moe. I collected them and placed them in a little pamphlet that I gave out at the medal ceremony and emailed to people who couldn't attend. More comments and poems arrived after David died. I found myself the possessor of pages of sometimes amusing, sometimes grief-stricken, always respectful praise by people who had been touched by David's poetry or whom he had helped in their careers. I remember running into him on the street in 1985. "Hey, Jack," he said, "I mentioned your work in Poetry Flash." Those were the days when David seemed—to use an old-fashioned word—preppy. Later, he abandoned that affectation and began to look like what he always was: a deep, starry-eyed bohemian, a poet who made the rounds of the various series that appeared and disappeared throughout the area. He had a quiet laugh and a button, perhaps procured from Stanley McNail: "HIGH ON POETRY." Everyone knew him; everyone liked him. If there was a single word people used to describe him, it was the word sweet.

Norm Moser, a close friend of H.D. Moe's, said, "Moe eats, drinks and defecates just like the rest of us. After that the resemblance ends." Another friend, Julia Vinograd, said, admiringly, "H.D. Moe, oh, he's a character!" He was, indeed. What are we to do with a passage like this?

BLUFF TOWING A DESERT    PHILHARMONIC

Titurel urna

yama yaffling

qualalah gimel chokmah ketber tiphareth

viracil lombox marshal macluen fried radar

  hitchhiking by lavastone endearments

  gypsy filmstar parallelism to our endless out

    lineup churchmouse

The answer of course is: read it. Or, failing that, listen to it, read it aloud. The passage is exactly what it says it is—literally phil-harmonic, full of the love of music. There are references in David's work to (among other people) Lester Young and Anita O'Day, and they evoke what has been said of Moe more than once: that he is a jazz poet. But perhaps, even more than that, he is "a character," an original—more like nothing else in the world than like a "jazz poet." The jazz is there, but it seems to be there as a kind of background, an enthusiasm still present but no longer able to account for everything. When I got to know him, he seemed to be more genuinely—as he puts it—"PHILHARMONIC," Classical even. The poem I have quoted ends with the marvelous line, "buggy flight into the sweet unknown," and "flight into the sweet unknown" is exactly what H.D. Moe is all about. And he is "buggy" in all the senses of that word. The poems "bug" Moe's critics, but they "bug" his admirers too—stay with us, remind us of an extraordinary openness, a "place" in which an intentionally misspelled "marshal macluen" can hobnob with the likes of "qualalah gimel chokmah kether tiphareth / viracil lombox" and "fried radar." That openness might be called the fundamental condition of Moe's poetry, and it is certainly responsible for much of the poetry's enormously attractive flash and glitter, its terrific noises:

    you tuck in my bones

      mutating goons

        android balloons

dust clowning photons

  strumming man with a woman's thumb

In the rush of the verse one hears sound happening over and over again: the off-rhyme of "bones," "goons," "photons," the true rhyme of "goons," "balloons," the echoing of "strum" in the word "thumb."

It is, I believe, in this condition of openness—a state in which Any Word May Happen At Any Time—that Moe's poetry occurs, yet individual poems and passages, even individual words, create specific emphases. There is comedy, of course (at one point the poet cries out, "it's only the uugggaabougah") but there is much else besides. This is from a love poem:

pebbles in the

  sun's mouth

    raven on the

      waves

        roots kicked

          up by

            crutches

              of

                Ireland

                  she

                    is

                      the

                        wonderful

                          dark -

And this is an ecstatic response to a poetry reading:

what is the communal name now

   for us evolvers

beyond the boundaries

        of our own known glowing?

    who is the googol of I

     soundlessly remote in the oceany rows?

                  my mind an empty boxcar

     clicking along a new country side of thoughts

                  abe lincoln the earth

                    O immortal cologne

                      & lavender waterfall

                          imbued in this room

        I hear so many translations

            my individuality

    is sometimes happily lost

        O bright nomenclatures

        O quiet wisdom

        Like the black beetle I touched

        who refused to climb upon my thumb,

            alone digging

There has always been a place in American letters for the "experimental," the "new," and, beyond this, for what might be called the "transcendental," the headlong thrust into the universe. Here is Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning… [The mystic] nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. [For the poet] all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive….

("The Poet," Essays, 1844)

Moe's language is definitely fluxional, vehicular, and transitive. So many American "classics" are the products of people who seem both isolated and profound— "eccentrics." (Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, Ives.) H.D. Moe speaks of such people as "evolvers" and ends his poem with a particularly apt description of both his and their activity: alone digging. He told me he used to encourage editors to rearrange his verse— "Surprise me," he would say—and "surprise" is certainly a characteristic of this poetry. But there is also a child-like quality which sometimes produces passages like this:

       WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE NUTTEHUMPYO

              GRAND CANYON EARS

                   nuttiehumpyu

              nuttee            nuttehumpyo

nuttiehumpyee

                        nuttium

                             nute humpyu

But if H.D. Moe is a child, he is a child who has been amazingly metamorphosed into a sort of encyclopedia as absolutely everything finds new and extraordinary uses in his work. His poetry is an enormously refreshing production of a mind which interests itself in everything that is. "Passage to more than India," wrote Walt Whitman, "are they not all the seas of God?"

Now that Moe is gone, who can we find to remind us that poetry— poetry, not "light verse" —is the mind finding ways to lighten up, to illuminate, to be brilliant, to have more fun than a barrel of nuttehumpyos?


Photo: H.D. Moe, Pat Nolan's Black Bart Poetry Festival, San Francisco, 1983. Photo by Maureen Hurley.

This tribute will be published in the forthcoming Fightin' Words, a PEN Oakland anthology, edited by Judith Cody and Claire Ortalda, with Kim McMillon, to be distributed by Heyday in fall 2014.


Jack Foley is a poet and critic living in Oakland, California. His radio show, "Cover to Cover" is heard every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. on Berkeley station KPFA. With Clara Hsu, he edited A Medal for H.D. Moe: Tributes & Poems, a book of responses to H.D. Moe's life and work. Published in September 2013 by Poetry Hotel Press, it is available on Amazon. Poetry Hotel is also publishing Foley's forthcoming selected poems, EYES.


— posted September 2013
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