Make for Higher Ground, Diane Lee Moomey
Published by Barefoot Muse Press
Review by Laura Schulkind
Diane Moomey is one of those masterful form poets who uses structure to challenge boundaries. Her new collection, Make for Higher Ground (Barefoot Muse Press, 2021), does just that. Throughout, it is evident she has drawn on I Ching: #57, Penetrating Influence, which she speaks of in the introduction and riffs on in the opening poem, as the collection both offers a path to higher ground, and persistently urges us to take it.
Her path begins with “Small Wild Things,” a group of poems that leads us into the high grasses that lie just beyond the road. In the poem, “in tall red grasses once,” “she finds “a nest / not far from where we’d parked the Chevy.” She creates similar images in “Wearing Snakes,” where she finds sleek snakes, “In summer’s green beside the fence, / by long stems my father’s mower doesn’t / reach,” and in “Time Share at the Country Club,” where she imagines wild cats in the forest abutting the golf green:
So now you’ll bide your time
until the dusk, hiding in the rough.
I pack my clubs and seek the car, slam
the trunk. You hang around, shadowed. Eyes:
it’s your turn, now. You’ve waited long enough.
In juxtaposing human activity and wildness, she urges that we not forget our connection to the wild—even as we mow and drive and golf and stay indoors with the radio blaring. As she concludes in “Chaparral,”
turn up the radio,
blot out the yucca and the sage,
of all that’s feral. You know the wild
is out there. Sometimes
that’s all you need.
From there, she takes us to our beginnings in a section titled “Tap Roots”— suggesting we can’t get much of anywhere without understanding our origins — such as in “The Other Attic,”
I’d only need a ladder. I’d reach
and push that square aside, unseal
that other attic—not the one
that holds our bedrooms—and reveal
what must be hidden! Once inside
I’d open trunks and boxes, pry;
so certain that I’d found the place
where all the family secrets lie.
The intimate details of these poems, as in “Her Screen Porch,” also convey a loving eye.
the wicker chair with yellow chintz
that curved to fit her, cabbage roses curved
around her; mother’s mother.
This gentleness suggests we can cherish where we came from without getting trapped there. In “Carousel,” she considers her own mother’s choices, and in so doing perhaps explains her own:
crimson wheel is spinning
‘round a center of mirrored tesserae, flashing
tails and faces, scent of cotton candy.
You could get off. You may have wanted something
else: the purple unicorn, that pearly
horn, the tail swept high across an arching
back, a gilded halter. Instead, the grey mare.
Now grounded, the book offers us “Fractals,” a series of poems on how to navigate a dangerous world. Here we find perfectly placed at the middle of the book, “Water Above Water Below,” (a riff on I Ching “#29 —Danger”), which gives us these final lines:
The lamps are going out, dear
one by precious one and it’s for us
to choose to live in darkness or, blind
and trembling, make for higher ground
and set ourselves alight.
Then, in the last two sections she suggests a way out of the darkness. In the series called “Coming Up For Air,” the poems remind us to find delight in the world we have. In “Kiss Kiss, 2020,” dear friends embrace amid the pandemic:
Tomorrow afternoon we’ll meet outside
your house. I’ll squeeze Purell into my right
palm and gently stroke your left cheek;
you’ll do the same for me, from lip to ear.
In “Pandemic Picnics, a Proposal,” she plans: “We’ll take a fender each. I will reach across / with love and gloves / to pass you opener and Anchor Steam.” And in “At the Dollar Bins,” she delights both in the treasures that can be found there and the fun of rummaging for them:
She’ll gather not
because she must eat crumbs or take
whatever comes, or lick the final
jelly from the jar and not
because somebody somewhere may
be starving. Gather, glean—to keep
or give away—because something
in this skirt, that sequined vest,
those purple gloves, is still alive.
In “Lights Above the Poles” she adds, and ends, with love. A gorgeous series full of sky and light, these poems tell stories that remember, long for, miss, and sustain love. “Ode, with Wings,” almost soars off the page:
I loved you in the air, the air. You wore
new wings, and in your father’s plane so proudly
lent, you flew me upside down. Because
I loved you there, all skies belong to you—
Importantly, there is nothing saccharin here. The last poem, “Deciduous—ballad for Tim,” ends ominously:
Making coffee, breaking camp—
we do this well together,
but whitecaps, winds and lowered skies;
promise heavy weather.
And that’s the point. Higher ground is not a panacea; it isn’t even a place. It is a way of being in the world that Moomey gently urges in this compelling collection.
Diane Lee Moomey has lived and wandered around the US and Canada, and now dips her gardener’s hands in California dirt. She co-hosts a monthly Poetry series in Half Moon Bay. A regular reader at San Francisco Bay Area poetry venues, her work appears, or will soon appear, in Light, The MacGuffin, Mezzo Cammin, Poetry Magazine.com, California Poetry Quarterly, Caesura and Red Wheelbarrow, and has been nominated for two Pushcart prizes. She has won prizes and Honorable Mentions in the Sonnet and Creative Non-Fiction categories of the Soul Making Keats Literary Contest, and in the Ina Coolbrith Circle.
Laura Schulkind has two chapbooks with Finishing Line Press, The Long Arc of Grief (2019) and Lost in Tall Grass (2014). Her work also appears in numerous journals, and published pieces can be found on her website, www.lauraschulkind.com.
Versions of this review have also appeared in Poetry Letter No. 4, 2021 of the California State Poetry Society and Compulsive Reader.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.