Mom And Moore

Reviewing Linda Leavell’s new biography of poet Marianne Moore, Jenny McPhee finds that the book’s “greatest achievement … is [Leavell’s] nuanced, sensitive, and revelatory depiction of surely one of the most intensely destructive/productive mother-daughter relationships in literary history”:

While at Bryn Mawr, Moore discovered she was “possessed to write” and “a demon dish_moore needing wild horses to drag me from the diabolical profession.” A few years after graduation, she and her mother moved to New York City, where they would live together for nearly thirty years until [Moore’s mother] Mary’s death in 1947. Everything Moore did, everything she wrote, was subject to her mother’s intense scrutiny. Mary did all she could to hinder her daughter’s healthy, prolific existence while also devoting herself to Moore’s success in body, soul, and literary vocation. She committed herself so fully to Moore’s thwarting she often became an invalid herself, suffering from “nervous exhaustion,” which forced Moore to become her nurse.

Moore’s only place to be alone was in her poetry: she relentlessly pursued syllabic meter, unsentimental topics, searing irony, quirky stanzas with odd line breaks, and an inscrutable language in an effort to keep her mother out.

“The frailest bit o’ bones that could presume to be ‘a man'” is how Mary described her daughter, and Leavell speculates that Moore’s chronic low weight — she probably suffered from anorexia — may have contributed to her total lack of sexual interest. [Ezra] Pound flirted heavily with her, as did many artists, writers, editors, and patrons both male and female; but Moore’s amorous indifference was profound and unwavering. Besides, as her poem “Marriage” suggests, for all intents and purposes she was already faithfully married to her mother and would do nothing to upset, much less betray, that formidable bond.

This mysterious, uncompromising attachment in which Mary masculinized Moore, at least on a linguistic level, became a source of great power. Throughout her life, in her subversive fashion that at once circumvented and celebrated her mother, she cultivated her own considerable power: “To be understood” is “to be no / Longer privileged.” And in “Marriage”: “men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it.” In a book review, she wrote, “Love is more important than being in love”; and in her poem “The Paper Nautilus,” she described a mother’s love as “the only fortress / strong enough to trust to.”

(Image of Marianne Moore in 1935 via Wikimedia Commons)