Prose Feature: A Review of Rosalie Moffett’s JUNE IN EDEN (Ohio State University Press, 2016), by Matt Morton

December 23, 2016

Rosalie Moffett’s debut collection, June in Eden, winner of the 2016 The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, appropriately begins with a poem titled “Revisions.” “The context, it turns/out, is at the mercy /of the interior,” Moffett writes, a declaration that could be read as the thesis statement for the entire book. Indeed, the poems in June in Eden observe, investigate, and name the many ways that our fragile world is in flux and constantly reconfiguring itself: a hurricane restructures a landscape; a freak accident damages one’s memory; a single new thought or feeling dramatically alters the lens through which one experiences the world.

At the heart of June in Eden is the possible brain injury Moffett’s mother suffered in a cycling accident—“helmetless, my mother/unaware, was lifted or cradled as cars/she did not recall wove around her.” As the book progresses, Moffett repeatedly attempts to understand and to cope with the ways the accident’s aftermath has changed the world for her family and herself. Early in the book we learn that, as a result of “her concussion/[that] refused to undo itself,” Moffett’s mother began to lose the ability to remember certain words. Thus, June in Eden is characterized by a compelling internal tension: the poet’s dependence on language to describe an ongoing struggle in which language is unreliable and, perhaps, even hostile.

Moffett is adept at forging unexpected connections between objects and ideas, and her mother’s struggle to remember words is frequently mirrored in the poet’s observations and descriptions of the world around her. In “Intersection,” Moffett approaches the subject of her mother’s accident through a memory of the damage Hurricane Jerry caused to Galveston in 1989—almost immediately after her mother was injured there:

It’s as if all the roads between a thing

and its name disappeared. Texas 87 washed
itself into sand, entirely. Our flimsy rented house

was intact, the little yard leaping with fleas, just

as we left it. She was home. She looked the same,
but you could watch her feel

around for a word, as if along a wall for a light switch.

We waited at stop signs: empty intersections,
blank, whole minutes passing.

The brain has to beat down new paths.

Uncanny: Highway 87 never was rebuilt—too close
to the gulf, to the rising water to be patched.

Elsewhere, in the title poem, Moffett similarly employs imagery drawn from nature to reveal her preoccupation with her mother’s condition: “There are so many/strawberries, as yet unmarred,/the plants sending out their runners,/covering up the garden pathways.” Moffett’s mother is a botanist, and her family lives on a farm; Moffett’s conflicted attitudes toward weather and the natural world—its power to give life and to take it away—compete with one other throughout June in Eden. The title of the book itself suggests an anxiety about seasonal change. If spring can turn into summer, even in Eden, then autumn and winter—with all their attendant implications—can’t be far behind. And what, then, does that say about Paradise?

Although her mother’s accident is the central concern of the book, Moffett refuses to limit herself to a single subject, an ambition that separates June in Eden from other accomplished debuts. These poems also find Moffett wrestling with anxieties about mortality, the urban world’s encroachment on rural spaces, and the effects of the proliferation of technology. The book’s first lines present an unsettling image of anthromorphized machines performing jobs that were once completed by people: “All over town, trucks reach out/their three metal fingers, grasp trash bins,/lift them in an arc.” In the title poem, Moffett asserts, “Everything outside the garden//can do as it pleases with computers, etc./Here, things are coming into being/all the time.” We might infer that one of the impetuses for Moffett’s poetry is the desire to protect and to preserve these natural spaces from the intrusion of “Everything outside.”

One of the most delightful aspects of these poems is their idiosyncratic rhetorical movement. Moffett’s poems generally progress according to a familiar logic, and yet the lines of discourse are never straight. Rather, the poet’s mind is constantly turning at oblique angles, playing with her readers’ expectations about what direction each successive sentence will take without ever rendering us confused. I often find myself at the end of a poem looking back to the first line, wondering at how far I have traveled from the point of departure. These large-scale shifts are the result of smaller pivots from one sentence to the next, in which a word or phrase may serve as an unexpected hinge. Take the end of “Intersection,” in which a doctor is showing Moffett and her family an MRI of her mother’s brain:

I examine the intricate map of white lines
where I must, in some form, reside.

I don’t immediately see

any soft spots—The Specialist,
pointing, hopeful—where we look at memory. But I feel

very soft, or I hardly feel at all.

The transition in the penultimate stanza, from the doctor’s observation to the first-person “But I feel,” initially feels jarring. Because the final sentence straddles a stanza break, we cannot easily see how it will resolve itself, and we are surprised to have moved immediately from the doctor’s hopeful diagnosis to Moffett’s rebuttal in the form of a reference to her own condition—a subtle admission of the poet’s guilt about her self-concerned experience of her mother’s accident. In the poem’s delayed final line, however, the connection between the two sentences is made more explicit with the repetition of “soft,” which now takes on an additional denotation. In this way, by using language to forge fresh and surprising connections between adjacent sentences, Moffett, herself, attempts to “beat down new paths,” just as her mother’s brain struggles to do the same.

As the ending of “Intersection” makes clear, Moffett is fiercely intelligent, and nowhere is this intellect more on display than in her dexterity with line endings. I cannot think of a poet who so closely attends to the way the self-contained meaning of one part can modify and enhance our understanding of the whole. Here, for example, is the beginning of “Long Division”:

It’s almost autumn. It’s almost human
the way everything changes into Ghosts
-and-Candy from Back-to-School.

The first line presents an unresolved parallel, in which the repeated “It” initially appears to refer to the same antecedent: What, we are prompted to ask, could be both “almost autumn” and “almost human”? The next line, however, revises our understanding of the syntax of the second sentence; we now can interpret retroactively the second “It” as referring to “the way . . .” without losing the mystery implicit in our initial uncertainty. Read on its own, the second line—“the way everything changes into Ghosts”—becomes a subtle memento mori. If the sentence were to end there, it would read “It’s almost human the way everything changes into Ghosts.” But no, the third line again revises our interpretation of the sentence: “Ghosts” is modulated into the much safer “Ghosts-and-Candy,” and our adult awareness of death is quickly costumed and forgotten amidst the innocence of childhood holiday spectacle. I find it remarkable that Moffett is able to use three lines 1) to establish the temporal context for the poem, 2) to expose the plasticity of grammar and syntax, and 3) to reveal a psychological tendency through subtle mimesis. June in Eden is full of these big micro-level accomplishments; as a result, poems that address similar subject matter never feel like they are retreading the same ground.

Ultimately, June in Eden can be read as a character study, a psychological portrait of a woman struggling to accept the inevitably of loss. Throughout her debut, Moffett wrestles with a number of internal tensions: the desire to tell her mother’s story and the uncertainty about her permission or ability to tell it; the intimacy of emotional vulnerability and the self-protective tendency toward restraint; a distrust of contemporary society and a childlike excitement in collecting and naming all the various objects contained in the world. For this reason, reading June in Eden gives one the sense of spending time with a particularly interesting mind as it examines its confusions and contradictions. And that reading experience is enlivening. When I spend time with Moffett’s poetry, I afterward find myself in a more colorful world, even as her poems also remind me that vividness cannot last. “I can’t//help it: what a flimsy little voice/I have,” Moffett laments with characteristic self-deprecation. As June in Eden makes clear, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Matt Morton

Matt Morton has received support for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his poetry appears in AGNI, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of North Texas, where he is a Robert B. Toulouse Fellow. Find more at www.mattmortonpoetry.com.

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