Attached below are JPGs from the article, and full text of the interview runs below. Thanks to Kate Wallace for the well written article.
Robert Moore didn’t bleed on his keyboard to write his latest collection.
The Golden Book of Bovinities came to him so easily, he was highly suspicious it was any good.
It was. In fact, it might be the best, most original thing he has written.
The Saint John poet won’t say that. What he does say is it might be the last.
“That sounds overly dramatic, self-elegiac,” Moore says during a recent interview on the patio of the new house he and his wife, Judith Mackin, have built in Saint John’s north end. But he has done what he set out to do.
“This is the book I was meant to write as poetry, and I don’t think I need to do it anymore,” he says, although it sounds more like a question than a statement.
Moore’s poetry career began as a word-crush in the basement of his family’s Hamilton, Ont., home where, as a teenager, he practically played the grooves off of recordings of Leonard Cohen and Dylan Thomas readings.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I must do. This is a way of speaking that is incantatory, alchemical, magical. How does one ever come up with that?’ And setting my compass to eventually speak like that.”
He studied literature and, for more than 20 years, has taught it at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. He has published three previous collections he now calls “very conventional Canadian poetry books.”
Nearly 50 years after mooning over those recordings in the subterranean suburban gloom, he has found his voice.
And it is a cow’s.
Now, hold the moo and milk quips. The Golden Book of Bovinities is less about cows than the conceit of cows. Moore bristles when he is introduced as “the cow poet.”
“Am I the cow poet? I know nothing about cows. I didn’t grow up with cows, I’m not that interested in cows,” he says.
He does remember a time as a child being left outside the barn at his grandparents’ farm, surrounded by these “large, potentially terrifying animals.
“So there’s this mass of flesh and sentience around you that, in a sense, is super-oriented toward you,” he says. Different than the pigs and horses and chickens, “the cows seemed both pet-like and impressive in their bulk.”
But Bovinities isn’t really about cows – it is about us.
“What cows are is a screen on which to project humans,” Moore says. “They are thoroughly ours. So the cow that emerges in The Golden Book of Bovinities is really just a shadow that we cast on the ground, on our plates, on each other.”
Moore’s wry humour lightens the collection’s darker corners and nihilistic tendencies. Because there is death on every page, sometimes implied, sometimes explicit.
The mass scale of cow death underscores the fact that we’re living, he says.
“We’re one of the great death-defying cultures that has ever been. We hide death everywhere. And the cow is caught up in that. The cow does our dying for us.”
Sipping red wine from a blue plastic cup (work on the house is ongoing, and the kitchen isn’t installed), he mentions Annie Dillard’s Tinker at Pilgrim Creek, a contemporary woman’s Walden.
“Everything is celebrated: salamanders, the undersides of leaves,” he says. “Everywhere she looks she is in a magic kingdom.”
Until cows, that is.
“They are a man-made product, like rayon,” Dillard writes. “They’re like a field of shoes.”
“That’s dismissive,” Moore thought at first. “But she’s right. The cow, as we know it, is an extension of us. There’s very little cow left in a cow. We invented them.”
Truly, is there any animal you can less imagine in the wild?
“They’re so far gone from whatever they once were,” Moore says. “They’re thoroughly us.”
Moore began writing the slices of aphoristic wisdom that would become The Golden Book of Bovinities as he composed his last book, Figuring Ground.
He was interested in ghazals, short epigrammatic statements, and wrote about a dozen.
“I just loved them,” he says. “I agonized over these other poems and they aren’t nearly as good. This just came. I loved reading it, I loved delivering it at readings.”
Mostly alyrical, aphoristic or epithetic in nature, they are plain-speaking free verse written in crisp, precise prose that tends towards paradox and allows for wordplay.
“It doesn’t really look like poetry,” Moore says. He’s more than OK with that. He paraphrases Billy Collins: “If it looks like a poem, it probably isn’t.”
What he means is poetry should always be remaking itself.
“It’s a radically inventive form, so if it is occupying a space that has already been cleared, it’s really probably not a poem.”
Moore was guided, also, by a quotation by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, which he uses in his prologue: “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry.”
“If we use our own language, if we use our own thoughts, we’ll just never get at it,” Moore says. “So it has to be poetry. I think in that sense he’s defining poetry as the closest we get to the unsayable.”
He points to Macey and Scout, his Boston terriers tearing around the yard.
“Really, we just use them as mirrors. Really, there is very little dog left. The part that is dog, we don’t want to understand.”
Using animal as foil or unifying theme or image seems obvious, but, besides Crow, by Ted Hughes, Moore is at a loss to name another collection of poetry focused on a single animal.
Bovinities is illustrated, too, a surprisingly rare thing in books – poetry books, in particular, especially those for adults.
Moore invited his friend Chris Lloyd, a contemporary artist from Quispamsis who lives in Montreal, to interpret visually what he’d done in words.
The pair worked in relative, ahem, silos.
“It’s more the fact of the illustrations rather than what it is that Chris did,” Moore says.
“It was a funny kind of relationship because I didn’t, in a way, want to touch the process, I just wanted to see what the results were.”
Lloyd went for the more surreal aspects of the book. His cows have blank eyes and distorted shapes. There are impossible mashups of cows and grills, as well as a recurring image of structures resembling fences or ladders that could be read as barnyard or abattoir references, as well as an ambiguous recurring hole motif. Lloyd also created a Rorschach blot drawing that looks like a cattle skull that is used to visually separate one poem from the next.
“I wanted to stay away from painting cows hanging on hooks, that’s almost too easy, it’s cliché,” Lloyd says. “I wanted to keep things in a dreamlike state. A state of imagination.”
Lloyd says he appreciated the depth and scope of Moore’s exploration, which is both deadpan and grave, neither apologia nor indictment.
“Maybe what makes his observations so keen is that he is implicated in everything,” Lloyd says.
Moore eats meat. He has a leather jacket. This isn’t Pamela Anderson wearing a lettuce bikini promoting vegetarianism.
“My hands are extremely bloody,” Moore says.
He isn’t against meat-eating per se, but the willful ignorance, the collusive cruelty.
“It’s not that we should stop eating meat. It’s that we should remember what we’re doing. And that’s true just generally.
“Attention must be paid, always.”
– Kate Wallace covers the arts for the Telegraph-Journal. She can be reached at email@example.com.