A first-time reader of Marianne Moore’s poems might be forgiven for thinking that they were dictated on the sly in some uproarious menagerie of the imagination. A longtime reader feels this even more powerfully. If a pangolin, a jerboa, an octopus, or a basilisk were suddenly to become literate and take up verse—not the wildest of improbabilities in Moore’s weird world—these are the sorts of poems it might write. And yet, though Moore is patently sympathetic to her chosen creatures, and at least tacitly fond of them, her poems on exotic animals are hard and crisp and factual, for all their surface zaniness. Unlike, say, Rilke, who sought the closest possible identification with his panther or his flamingoes, Moore maintains the cool distance of respect. That doesn’t prevent the poems from being pangolinesque; in fact, it enhances that effect.

Heather Cass...


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