The Bolt-Cutters: poems by Thomas R. Moore
(Fort Hemlock Press, Brooksville, Maine, 2010)
[Previously published in the Bangor Daily News, Maine, 2010]
A Postwar American Life in Poetry
At the end of World War II the world was in ruins. Not only were cities and towns destroyed, but virtually every person on the planet was psychologically and emotionally wounded. Out of the anguish, the American war survivors came home and set about to regain a sense of order by settling down to a quiet life. Some of the survivors’ children – a bunch now roughly 55 to 75 years old – in turn set about to find their place in a world that felt like it had gone mad, and they began zigzagging back and forth across America in search of better jobs, better homes, better life.
Around 1950 a few social misfits were assuming the “better life” inhered not in physical comfort but in intellectual and spiritual adventuring and (hopefully) enlightenment, and they went on the road to find it. By 1957 there was a book, On the Road, which helped swell the numbers into practically the whole generation. In the turbulence of the great effort to find meaning in life, some tried escaping back to the land, some destroyed themselves with drugs, and some just kept moving, from place to place and occupation to occupation. It all crested around the mid-1970s.
If you want to know what a life lived in the zigzagging and its aftermaths felt like, read Thomas Moore’s first collection of poems, The Bolt-Cutters. The book is a lyric-by-lyric autobiography of epiphanic moments in America’s postwar decades. It’s a record, not of public events and issues, but of what it was like living off the radar of those events.
Moore’s boyhood was spent in Massachusetts and at a summer home in Brooksville, Maine. As an adult he zigzagged for more than 40 years in and out of teaching, dropping out of the mainstream to join the Peace Corps (once in Iran and once in Mali) and to teach in Istanbul (twice). He wended his way to New Zealand to work as a farmhand and out of teaching to do carpentry. In the 1990s he earned a doctorate, wrote a book on sailing terminology, and from 1996 to 2006 taught at Maine Maritime Academy. Now in his 70s, he lives and writes in Brooksville.
This is a hauntingly familiar errancy of the postwar decades, born not of aimlessness but of aim-seeking. The phrase “find yourself” now seems to trivialize the pursuit, but discovering who you were and trying to make something meaningful out of life amid chaos was a serious endeavor in the 1960s and ’70s. Moore’s poems, written along the way, offer the whole range of postwar life’s themes – from a troubled relationship with a father, to discontent with too much comfort, to grief, to recurrent fascinations with small things that seem to be windows into larger things.
“Writing for me is catharsis and discovery, a way of working things out and finally seeing clearly,” Moore wrote in an email a few years ago. “It is terribly difficult.”
Among postwar children, one of the most difficult things to see clearly was a seemingly epidemic sense of disconnection from parents. The title poem of Moore’s book anchors us to the centrality of this experience, recounting the death of the speaker’s father. He and his siblings are invited by their mother to select a tool from their father’s woodworking shop, one “that you will use”:
I chose the heavy red bolt-cutters
with three-foot handles
and the blue peavey …
but I’ve used the bolt-cutters maybe twice
in twenty years.
What did I think I might cut
with that tool?
Spikes? Fences? Padlocks? The hot shackle of anger
that bound us?
Similar multifaceted personal imagery from postwar life is unfolded in poem after poem: being a baseball fan and a teenager in 1950s Massachusetts; teaching high school and college; giving up teaching’s monotonies for carpentry; deep grief spanning France, Canada and Maine; spots of time in Turkey, Greece, New Zealand and the unemployment line. There is also superbly sharp imagery from rural Maine – birds, burning brush, the smell of diesel; “Tall spruces whip in the winds / around the clearing for our house.”
A lot of the themes, imagery and shape of the language in The Bolt-Cutters are available in other well-wrought books of contemporary verse. But what sets this collection apart is that practically every poem provides a forceful emotional jolt. A lot of our postwar poetry is so subdued in tone and diction that it severely understates its emotional content and the emotions often disappear from the reading experience; but Tom Moore’s poems evoke strong, finely developed feelings with startling clarity.
The Bolt-Cutters is in the strand of American poetry that emphasizes personal expression, not political and cultural comment, yet it provides a picture of what it was like for many intellectually attentive Americans to live in the postwar decades. These are well-made, thoughtful, highly evocative poems, one of which, “Calving in Te Awamutu,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The book is available through www.forthemlockpress.com. His second collection, equally skilled and revealing, is "Chet Sawing," also available through Fort Hemlock Press.
Dana Wilde's reviews and writings have appeared in Galatea Resurrects, House Organ, Exquisite Corpse and many other publications, as well as his website of Maine poetry, A Parallel Uni-Verse.