Book Review: Poems and Prints Commune in ‘What Rough Beasts’

Leslie Moore’s “What Rough Beasts” reads like a field notebook turned art. With depictions of birds and animals in 40 poems and 29 prints, Moore demonstrates his considerable skills as a poet and visual artist, creating fascinating conversations between image and text. These closely and lovingly observed creatures accompany Moore as teachers and companions on life’s journey.

A few creatures only appear in engravings. “Great Blue Dance at Sunrise”, which opens the first section, “Naming the Birds”, captures the spectacular mating dance of two herons silhouetted against a red and yellow background, one adding to the stick nest, the another with its beak pointing straight up. Some creatures appear in poems but not in prints. For example, four poems are devoted to vivid depictions of the jagged appearance and noisy presence of crows. A crow “flies, / a black panic in the feathers” in “Riddle of the Crow”, while in “Murder!” a group of crows screeches like banshees and “cuts the sky with sharp wings”.

Moore sometimes pairs a poem with a print to emphasize or echo a creature’s image. The bohemian waxwings, for example, are the “black-masked” and “silk-tailed, talkative, circumpolar/nomadic” bandits in the poem “Bush on Fire”, as they perch against a bright blue sky in the “Waxwings” print. Similarly, the “Evening Grosbeaks” print shows four birds posed exactly as they are depicted in “Harbingers”, such as “a candelabrum / in bare maple branches”. In another such pair, the “Coyote Moon” print shows a ghostly coyote prowling under a huge moon, while the poem “Coyotes” teaches that we humans believe everything is ours, until those “nights when a chorus of coyotes sings to the stars”. ”

In one instance, Moore offers multiple engravings of a creature with a single poem. The poem “Visitation”, in the second section, features a bear standing on its hind legs at the manger, filling “its empty throat”. The print opposite the poem, “Black Bear with Swagger”, depicts the bulky posture of a spinning bear, the weight shifting to its left front paw as it crosses the right. Two earlier engravings echo this lively visitor. “Black Bear Ambling,” the cover art, is the swaggering twin, while “Black Bear Singing in the Dead of Night” shows a bear with its muzzle up, mouth open, just above the book’s epigraph. Maxine Kumin: “Think of the language that the two of us, the same and not the same,/could have constructed from signs,/scratches, grimaces, grunts, vowels”.

Finally, the poet/artist presents a group of related poems with a single corresponding print. The three spider poems in the third section feature a Daddy Longlegs in the bathroom, a common house spider in the doorway, and a colorful garden spider. The ‘Black & Yellow Argiope’ print shows this lively third spider on the garden green. “To a Garden Spider”, addresses the Argiope as a real totem: “What lessons do you teach me about loneliness / and survival?”

Moore’s various ways of presenting his “beasts” create an immersive reading experience. His careful observations and vivid images insist that these creatures deserve our attention and respect. The collection is a meditation on the natural world and its countless lessons. It pays loving homage to Moore’s personal list of totems. She shows how the three most important – crow, bear and spider – have a lot to teach us about industry and survival, strength and wisdom.

The final poem in the collection, “Monarch,” offers a lesson in transformation. The words flit and heave across two pages, while the image of the monarch approaches the edge of the page, exiting. Although she speaks with the voice of the monarch, the poetess can also reckon with her own aging and eventual transformation, a fitting conclusion to this collection, which emphasizes the richness and acceptance of each lived moment.

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Jeri Theriault lives in South Portland. His poems and reviews have appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, The Rumpus, The Texas Review and elsewhere. She is a 2019 Maine Literary Award winner and editor of “Wait: Poems from the Pandemic.” Find it on jeritheriault.com


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Joan D. Boling