Fiona Moore’s The Distal Point is a debut collection that builds on earlier successes: poems from her pamphlets The Only Reason for Time (2013), a Guardian’s Poetry Book of the Year, and Night Letter (2015), shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award, appear alongside new work full of raw emotion and acute observation.
‘The Shirt’, an elegy, opens the first section entitled ‘Overwinter’ and gives context to mourning in the collection:
An office shirt, because that’s where it happened. The thin stripes slashed through- terrifying, unprecedented [.]
She exposes her own suffering and grief by following the prescription in ‘The Oncologist’:
Poets are meant to suffer. Use it, he said, sprawled across your bed writing up his notes.
Though death and despair are in these poems, there is also life and hope.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in ‘On Dunwich Beach’. The temptation to join a lost lover is explored through six couplets – each ending with the yearning refrain, ‘for you’, but modified by the changing nature of emphatic verbs: ‘undressing’, ‘swimming’, ‘searching’, ‘dying’, but ultimately, ‘breathing’ and ‘living’. This dynamic echoes the rhythm of the sea as it ‘raids the shore’. The pull between life and death is wonderfully rendered: ‘The water’s embrace jolts / heaves, lulls me’ … ‘drab land calls, the sea /spits me out.’
‘The Embrace’ mimics a dream’s fragmentary nature. Its loose lineation imparts emotional dynamic:
This time the strange thing is having reached you I feel you’re at once both nearer and further away.
The collection’s first section closes with ‘The Distal Point’. Distal point is the location situated farthest from a point of attachment; geologically, this represents the outer limits of an area affected by geological activity. In grief, perhaps, one is always at the distal point.
The title of the second section, ‘Exclave’, also suggests separation:
Ghost ship apart from the fleet or ice calf from berg, goose away from the skein.
In the second section, Moore looks outwards, exploring horrors, riots and regimes. Auschwitz, Dresden, Plötzensee, names freighted with traumatic histories, prepare us for a different kind of pain. The official’s ominous red phone used to ‘order arrests…say it’s ok to shoot’ dominates the prose poem ‘1985’ while ‘Museum’ conveys the grim life of the people:
One wall in each room is painted red with the reddest red in the last, empty room.
There are moments of despair and nihilism, as in ‘Quake’, where the anaphora of ‘nothing + nothing is an answer’ reminds us of King Lear. But humour leavens. ‘In the Middle of a Discussion about Brexit’ touches on industrialisation, corporate espionage, nationalism and climate change at a slant via Neapolitan ice-cream. The kitchen sink, railway timetable and both sublunary and extra-terrestrial cows lighten the collection and portray the mundane anew.
Moore experiments with form: ‘Hunger’ is a palindromic poem. In ‘The Rose, The Stars’, the title poem of the third section, she employs an Oulipian constraint, rephrasing the first line of each stanza as the last. In ‘Heart’, the left-hand lines have a strong rhythm and rhyme. The result is a conversation between different voices:
My heart my heart loyal beast I remember you only if you falter or if I’m sleepless like last night walker climber diver swimmer[.]
Night appears frequently so the collection appropriately finishes with three apostrophes to the moon. A feminine symbol which controls the tides, the moon reminds us of the passing of time and the power of love.
Moon, here’s a heart in the sand, and over there a lantern launched straight for you, a circle of orange flame soaring towards destruction: the higher, the more complete.
Tiny moments and sharp observations are conveyed in arresting images; Moore’s work is musical, elaborate, rich, full of subtext, and concrete and abstract juxtapositions. This collection deserves to be read and then read again.