“To Hold Your Moss Covered Heart,” by Schuyler Peck, 2019, Recenter Press.
The 43 poems in Schuyler Peck’s “To Hold Your Moss Covered Heart” begin and end with light. The first poem, “Photosynthesis,” sets the tone of the poems to follow.
“Everything around you
is softly taking in light,” (1),
and the last poem, “At The End,” summarizes and reflects on the experience of light as metaphor:
“Even if we are scattered out into stars,
just let me be a light that knows your name” (45).
The book’s poems are consistently kind and remindful, generous and forgiving – of the desperate meanness others inflict upon us and of the paradoxical meanness we sic upon ourselves. The writing is accessible. The intended audience includes those awakening from the feeling they’ve been wrong to follow their own desires. The occasion of the writing is the existential decision to move on, to live. We grow, we change; we don’t fit into the old uniform anymore:
“It’s been hard for me to eat.
My stomach thinks about money,
about love, about how I don’t
fit into the jeans I wore
in high school anymore” (8).
The poems are diaristic, personal. Writing in a journal or a diary, we need not reveal all the details. We were there. Instead, we reveal what we think about the experience, not so much a description of the past but of what is now sensed. This is reflection, which is not the same as simple memory, which often traps us in repeating what we’d rather not. This is made clear in the poem “On Wishing My Abuser Well, Part I”:
“I stayed alive, simply as the most basic form
of fuck you…” (26)
But from there we decide to let go, to move on, to escape our anger and the other’s persistence:
“Because staying angry
is like drinking poison
and expecting the other to die” (26).
Abuse takes many forms, and, again, we don’t get the details. This isn’t an autobiography. It’s not so much about the past as about learning to live in the present, of being able to look forward to something, of experiencing joy. The poems make good use of poetic narrative – metaphor is used to explain things: feelings, thoughts, situations. Experience is condensed in poetry. The book of poems is not a novel. There is only the bare necessity of language. There is a very subtle use of irony, of sarcasm, of wit:
“My church leader won’t use the word depression,
He suggests I sign up for a gym membership, you know,
to get those endorphins going” (7).
If Peck’s book of poetry is full of tender, soft love poems, it also includes going days without taking a shower, of the need to go to work with the feeling we aren’t getting anywhere financially, of being stuck between happiness and what, in several poems, Peck calls sin. I’m not sure what sin is. Maybe we know it when we see it, but we might only rarely recognize it in ourselves.
“Why do we do this…
work these hands for money
we’ll never be able to spend” (3).
Those are fundamental questions that have for some time now been nagging a new generation of poets and writers, of workers, of graduates in debt up to their ears, coming of age when an apocalypse appears near:
“Because I know how holy if feels
to be happy;
and right now,
I am nothing but sin” (6).
What do we want from others? From our parents, friends, teachers – advice?
“And you will have the fuck you farewell
to the small cage this town has been” (11).
The theme of light returns. There are possibilities of rebirth, rethinking, survival. This is what myth and oracles suggest. The light is so much with us, we might become trees (2, 14). And being born again does not have to be such a burden of shame. We don’t want to be born again if it means to be born into shame.
Neighbors keep their watch. We go about our business. An old man is adopted. This is the wise man difficult to find in one’s father. This is a man so old he has outgrown shame. He sins neither against others nor against himself. He “laughs with his eyes closed….This kind of happiness / is learned” (12).
“It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else,” John Cage said (Silence, 1961, “Lecture on Nothing”). And we lose that sense of irritation, whatever its source, when we recognize love has little to do with retail, cars, places. We don’t want to add the cost of an absurd wedding to our debt, or to fill our new pad with furniture purchased with credit. We look forward to light, its constantly changing presence, how light reveals and changes the surface and depth of things:
“This is home now:
the morning mist
so low on the hills;
the way the pigeons wait at the light
to cross the city streets” (22).
We may have brought with us some memory of growing up in a church. But we are transformed:
“…there is something omnipotent
how the holiest benedictions
are the most carnal” (23).
Some readers may find the poems a bit sentimental in parts. Too sentimental? That would be criticism at its most sinful. In any case, Peck has been careful to layer her poems, anticipating, perhaps, the complaint. She writes like she does because she wants her reader to know she’s listening, and she wants her reader also able to listen and to see the light:
“I realize that I am the sentimental bitch
seated in the back, falling in love with the low lights
and every annoyed eye-roll” (24).
The poems are graceful, gracefully written, and full of grace. But if there is light, there is dark. But one doesn’t have to take a bath in the darkness. About half way through the poems, there’s a sea-change. How are we to love our neighbor as we love ourselves if in point of fact we are not all that enamored with ourselves to begin with? The plot thickens. The light flickers:
“I didn’t die when I wanted to.
There was a time I was begging for the black skies
every other night just to take me” (25).
An epiphany comes in the form of light found in forgiving:
“My poems are no longer about the past.
They bring me hope” (26).
And, in the right light, we are invited to
“Watch how magic I can make
the biology of this body” (27).
There is a maturation of thought, of response, of determination. Forgiveness is about letting go of the anger, not about letting the abuser off the hook:
“I’m not basing my life on forgetting.
I’m not moving on, thinking I’ll never have
This is not about how she earned
This is about how I realized
my forgiveness belonged to me” (29).
The old man returns, “Melvin.” There were blizzards to live through, and dances, and songs. It’s a past worth listening to. Wherever we find ourselves, we find others with stories. We remember. It’s not exactly a nightmare if we can still write about it, yet:
“Some days, I don’t make it past the bedroom door” (37).
Each of the poems in Schuyler Peck’s book may stand alone: as an image, a reflection, an anecdote, a diary entry, a fragment, a complete tale. But viewed as a whole, the reader may see in the book a carefully structured story about an awakening that is both painful and a joy. The telling of the story is not naïve. The poems are carefully constructed to share and create a dialog between writer and reader in the act of writing and reading. I found this refreshing, honest, straightforward. There were times, reading, I worried, with her, for her. Faith in hope, like John Cage’s “somewhere else,” can create its own irritation if it’s forever kept out of reach. I read “To Hold Your Moss Covered Heart” several times. On my first reading, I failed to realize how cautionary the tale reads. It’s not a “how to” book. It’s not “advice” for the lonely hearted. It is a book of days, and of nights. The poems are at once both songs of innocence and experience.
Joe Linker is the QMT poetry editor from April, 2019, taking over from Erik Kennedy, Queen Mob’s second poetry editor, from May, 2015, who followed Laura A. Warman.