Ghost Moose, by Margo Taft Stever
Published by Kattywompus Press
Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley
Margo Taft Stever’s poems in “Ghost Moose” are beautifully written even as they illustrate the cruel conditions to which humans often subject animals. These poems offer a window into current ecological concerns about the reduction of biodiversity among and within species as well as how deeply this poet values the lives of all creatures.
Some poems combine warning and lament. This poet writes both lyrically and precisely describing human-inflicted animal cruelty. However, when Stever’s poems refer to people within her circle, the poems suggest rather than recount personal details.
Stever sets the thematic stage in her first poem, “Three Ravens’ Watch,” a poem written from the perspective of ravens watching skaters in the painting, “Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Traps,” by Peter Bruegel. Such a poem reminds readers that there has always been human folly. With an air of superiority, representatives of the animal kingdom castigate humans of an earlier era, admonishing them about ongoing calamities:
This harshest winter attracts you to skate, to forget
your misery, scrawling icy patterns. Ravens,
three of us, stand sentinel, noticing
your slow-witted motions, your ugly sprawls.
You who now skate, do not forget that you will return
to your endless winter, bread riots, witch
hunts, old widowed women targeted, and frozen birds
falling from the sky. We know that you want to eat us.
In an easy transition from the first poem to the title poem, “Ghost Moose,” once again we see children at a river, this time during a mild winter when ticks multiply and afflict moose calves, as “their mothers / witness starvation from blood loss.” Such poignant description calls to this reader’s mind assorted contemporary news photos of mothers hovering near their own children dying of starvation and disease in impoverished or war-torn countries. Stever’s poems call for respect of all sentient beings as she sets animals’ survival and well-being on par with that of humans .
Stever’s poems stand alone as well as share themes and images that glide smoothly from page to page. We know the name of the mental hospital and the names of drugs in Stever’s “Locked Ward” poems. However, we don’t know names of the people confined. It seems intriguing that the first “Locked Ward” poem abuts one about a mother’s death in “Calling Mother After She Died.”
These and other poems abound with images from nature. Stever expands the meanings of her poems by interjecting intimate commentary. For example, in the midst of the above poem, Stever asserts “I have forgotten what bound // us together, mother to daughter.”
Confinement of humans and animals is a through line in this chapbook, as with the three “Locked Ward” poems arranged within the chapbook. In addition, the poem, “Birds at the Zoo,” contemplates how Inca terns appear struggling to exit captivity, whereas the double-wattled cassowary freezes as if in “multi-colored / contemplation of her lot.” This short poem may give a reader pause to reflect how such animal response tendencies inform the human condition, how humans deal with stress and conflict.
In a subsequent poem, it becomes impossible to ignore the stress and searing cruelty imposed by crate confinement of pigs in factory farms. “Litany of the Sow” juxtaposes childhood rhymes with statistics of piglets crushed by the weight of their mothers. The musical poetic devices serve both as contrast and to ease reader tension in a difficult-to-stomach poem. How to ignore the pain of:
Fourteen piglets suckle at her teats;
she shifts her body to keep from losing
limbs. Hear her moans,
bones tear in her skin.
These poems combine anger, prayer, and plea. By following the poem, “Litany of the Sow,” with a poem given the title of a Christian hymn, “Agnus Dei,” Stever’s words allude to “Lamb of God” and invoke “mercy.” This poem describes encroachment of our housing and malls on animal habitat as well as how humans torment animals “just for fun.” Stever’s Biblical reference reminds us of a moral and spiritual call to be not only our brother’s keeper but to honor the lives of all sentient beings. We are called to keep them safe. Humans have inflicted “the sins of the world,” as the poem lists, such as “swamps bulldozed for sun / seekers, McMansions, / strip malls, five-acre “horse farms.’” The last verse of the poem begins lyrically as “Sunlight slants into the victim / pool, missing species, radiant / particles from the past” and ends by intoning, as in prayer, “Have mercy on us.”
This poet is not one to harangue. Let the reader intuit from powerful depiction. One of the last poems, “Beloved Child,” is composed from a letter by the poet’s great-great grandmother, as she lay dying, to her infant daughter. This poem resonates with earlier poems about the poor sow and the mother moose. Contrast this poignant epistolary poem of love with cruelty depicted in the couplets of “The Ballad of the Dolphin”:
Fishermen did not want to compete
with you, but killing you was not enough.
How they used the screams
of several to slaughter more.
Other soothing and ironic poems serve to lighten the harsh truths of this chapbook. Stever’s poems invoke concerns about loss of biodiversity, sometimes called the sixth (mass) extinction. She has written a brief elegy of the Anthropocene. Several poems speak of birthing, of motherhood, and of children. Species, even the human species, seek continuity, and we cannot live without hope and/or mercy.
The final poem of “Ghost Moose,” “End of Horses,” is written “from the end / of the time zone” when “nothing survived after // the horses were slaughtered.” Does this reference anticipate the end of the Anthropocene? One might read the poem as a cautionary premonition.
Reading this gem of a chapbook illustrates Stever’s own dictum. In an interview at The Chapbook Interview, she says, “The poet must have something to say. The poet must write out of passion and necessity rather than an attempt to showcase the latest craft trend.”
Stever’s chapbook is a moving example of ecopoetic literature that deserves wide reading. However long our civilization lasts, poems like these bear witness, inspire, and give us pause to do what we can to make a more positive impact for all species.
Margo Taft Stever’s poetry collections include Cracked Piano (CavanKerry Press, 2019); Ghost Moose (Kattywompus Press, 2019); The Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015); The Hudson Line (Main Street Rag, 2012); Frozen Spring (Mid-List Press First Series Award, 2002) and Reading the Night Sky (Riverstone Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, 1996). She co-authored Looking East: William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to China (Zhejiang University Press, 2012). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including Verse Daily; Prairie Schooner; Connecticut Review; “poem-a-day” on poets.org, Academy of American Poets; Cincinnati Review; upstreet; Plume; and Salamander. She is founder of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and founding and current co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. She lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York. For more information: https://margotaftstever.com/.
Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.