Contributor’s Marginalia: Claire Wahmanholm on “Moon” by James Henry Knippen
My relationship with James Henry Knippen’s “Moon” started casually enough—a leisurely perusal, a piqued interest, a mild mystification, a rereading. To say I was bewitched would be entirely appropriate. Something powerful, something magical and magnetic, was at work. The poem’s repetitions were hypnotic, urgent, spell-like. Its images were vivid to the point of tangibility. The final line, despite its suggestion of heat, gave me chills.
Still, I felt I was missing something; I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the poem was holding something back—that I had been allowed to glimpse a secret that I couldn’t fully understand, but that I wanted to, and badly.
I decided to read the poem aloud. Maybe, like any number of enchanted objects, it was designed to reveal its secrets only after a magical phrase was spoken. I had already singled out a few that I thought held potential. I paused slightly after I read each one—weeping gladiolus? moonseed paralysis? chrysanthemum kiss?—wanting to give the poem a chance to accept the password.
I won’t claim that nothing happened. Reciting the poem was, in many ways, its own reward. The Germanic grunts of “enough” and “if” form a trellis around which the more Latinate botanicals flourish, and this tension is exciting—almost as exciting as the catalog itself. Bluestem, trillium, rose, gladiolus, frangipani, moonseed, monkshood, chrysanthemum: an entire conservatory pressed into sixteen lines. This density is manifested sonically, producing fragments of text irresistible to the tongue: “wet moon on bluestem”; “trillium tryst”; “blue light licks the lakeshore.” Not to mention the acoustic metamorphosis of “roses” into “gladiolus” and then, ominously, into “paralysis.” Or the way the short “i”s present throughout the poem reach their zenith in the final clinching of “incinerate this.”
Needless to say, I was smitten. Sirened, even. I suggested we meet more frequently. “Moon” obliged, but remained somewhat aloof. I walked around my apartment muttering snippets of the poem sotto voce, turning them over in my head as if the poem were a Rubik’s cube and mentally rotating the right piece would cause the whole thing to fall into place. Rose shadows wither. Gold shadow of monkshood. Frangipani at dusk. “Moon” blinked, sphinxine, from its page.
I tried to surprise it by coming upon it in the middle of the night. Perhaps in the moonlight, in its own element, it would reveal its secrets—perhaps even, à la Tolkien, in the form of moon-letters.
I got desperate. Since the poem was entirely constructed from conditional sentences, I decided the answer lay in following and subsequently untangling the logical thread they created. Thus began what turned out to be a hilariously misguided and, in fact, impossible quest. I’ll spare the details of my forays into the quagmires of polysyllogisms and transitive relations. Grails come to mind. The bottom line is that every logic puzzle includes a statement of certainty that serves as its lynchpin. For example, if P, then Q. If Q, then R. If R, then S. Given P, you can get to S. But there are no givens in “Moon.” The structure of the poem is better approximated by the following: if P, then Q. If Q, then R. If A, then B. If X, then Y. And so on until the end, where you are once again confronted by the wetness of the moon. The poem circles back on itself while simultaneously threatening to go up in smoke. But this threat, like the rest of the poem, is held in suspension by the conditionals. We don’t know if the moon is wet enough, just as we don’t know if touch equals faith, or if image, or sound, or fragrance is enough. What does it mean for anything to be enough? And what does “enough” even mean?
Existential crises were looming.
When caught in a net, an animal’s first instinct is to thrash. Trappers count on this, and the more the animal struggles, the tighter the net gets. The animal’s best chance of escape is to stop struggling, but to do so would go against everything in its nature.
This is not a perfect analogy (the poem was not, as far as I can tell, trying to kill me). Furthermore, I suspect that the poem had not intended (as far as poems can intend) to entangle me—I had entangled myself. And the only way out was to go limp, to accept a certain amount of defeat and be happy about it.
Ultimately, maybe all we can demand of a good poem is that it be worthy of ensnaring us in this way, that it be always a little mysterious—in the original sense. While “mystery”’s modern connotations often promise an eventual decipherment (as in a mystery novel), in its oldest forms, a “mystery” was explicitly unsolvable. Definition 2.a from the OED, for example: “A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving.” Knots incapable of being unraveled. Nets impossible to cut away.
Claire Wahmanholm holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins and is currently a PhD student at the University of Utah. Her work most recently appears in or is forthcoming from, Cincinnati Review, American Arts Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Measure, Rattle, and Unsplendid. She lives in Salt Lake City. Her poem, “Personal Ruin,” appeared with James Henry Knippen’s “Moon” in 32 Poems 11.1 this spring.