Reviewed by Sarah Spath
Two threads weave together Phylinda Moore’s first book of poetry, Herculaneum’s Fortune. The first mines the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, two ancient volcano-buried cities whose standard narrative joins instant death and destruction with perfect preservation, and thus, with immortality. Moore, though, sends her carefully researched poems in another direction. She approaches the large-scale devastation of her book’s topic with a shifting lens of small-scale human experiences, exploring the different ways we come into direct contact with such destruction. Thus, in “Eruption,” we see the rising clouds of Mt. Vesuvius through the account of Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption from a considerable distance. In “Interrupted,” Moore uses archeological evidence to bring her readers alongside a fresco painter in Herculaneum who “lost his balance / lime spilt his work / acid blotted shapes / before death stripped his bones.” And in “Theatrum Herculanense,” we mourn the unearthed, plundered theater alongside an early archeologist who encounters it centuries later: “of course you consider / plates and silverware, street stones and bowls // but who realizes the trappings of a stage.” The disaster that befell to the residents of Naples in AD 79 becomes a metaphorical framework for exploring not merely the larger themes of disaster and mortality, but also the human process of trying to understand it in art, in archeology, and over time.
The second thread emerges quietly in the voice of a modern-day “I.” In Part 1 of the book, this speaker functions as a universal stand-in for any of us when confronted with a power greater than ourselves, as when she react to a hurricane by “Clutching after broken boards, glass shards / catching splinters” and asking “what caused this devastation?” As we move through the book, however, the speaker gradually comes into sharper focus. In Part 2, she is haunted by the idea that a previous tenant was “left for dead / flashed sober in the tub” of the hotel room she stays in. But this universal dread is narrated through a specific voice: “Did I dream room seven-sixteen / covered in the Empire State Building’s shadow, / you noticed hours before your departure?” And, we eventually learn that this “you,” who does not appear again until midway through Part 3, “died again last night / a wound at your stomach / still in your car.” By the end of the book, the poems about Vesuvius have receded into the background, while the speaker emerges more fully to confront her own particular loss.
It’s as though the act of excavating, interpreting, and creating art out of the remains of ancient peoples becomes a tangible way to work through one’s own grief and sense of mortality. We often think of art in general, and poetry in particular, as a means of assuring the artist’s immortality. And though Moore certainly honors the people of Herculaneum and Pompeii by remembering them “in song,” she focuses more on how we hear and interpret that song as a way to bring meaning to our lives—while we are still alive. She creates poetry out of ancient graffiti, ancient garbage, and even museum exhibits that feature mummies from ancient Egypt. And yet, the most striking poem of the whole collection, “Heart Rat” is deeply personal, set in the here and now: “Someone is poking at the dead, brown rat / that used to be my heart organ.” Moore teaches us that poking at what is dead—whether in the past or within ourselves—helps us more fully understand our humanity.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 4.