At the age of 92, Jacqueline Moore of Portland has published a book of poetry called “Chasing the Grass.” In it, she explores themes about the natural world’s beauty and vulnerability, especially against the backdrop of human disruption.
Moore calls her work “eco-poetry,” and it’s a not-so-subtle call to action.
Moore doesn’t consider herself an environmental activist. She has never marched in the streets or campaigned to save a species or a special place. She grew up in Greenwich Village surrounded by city sights and sounds, but as a child she made an early connection to the outdoor world, spending summers near Belfast in an old house in the woods with no electricity or indoor plumbing.
“It was an enchanting place to come as a child,” she says. “I was about 5 years old when I first came up there. And what you tend to do is to watch the sky a great deal when you live off the grid, because you can tell what the weather will be like. You can adjust your life to what’s going on outside.”
Moore remembers the brilliance of the night sky, how the pebbles on the ground glowed as she walked on a moonlit night. She fell in love with the creatures on her landscape, plants and flowers and the woods. Her poems include references to colorful orchids and hummingbirds encountering bulldozers; monarch butterflies returning from the jungle, “tissue-thin orange with poison on their wings;” and a kite, cut from its string, looking down on the earth, “her web of life fast unraveling.”
Moore says her poem, “Flying a Kite From a Pasture on a Hill” is a metaphor for the way people go about their lives, unable to see what they’re actually doing to themselves and their surroundings.
You’re paper white,
stretched over bone,
your brows like crows
stalled in flight.
You’ve spent your life
taking off from earth,
running with dreams,
letting out slack.
When heaven tugs,
you cut your own string,
leave yourself behind,
and all the others.
Only now can you take
the long distance view
of the earth, her web of life
This, Moore explained recently to a Peaks Island Library audience, is what’s known as eco-poetry.
“Eco-poetry is not only poetry about the Earth, as it has been from the beginning, but it has a mission: to save the Earth,” she says. “It’s proactive rather than just reflecting nature.”
Moore creates searing images but uses words sparingly. Her poem “Entanglement” is about the grisly omnipresence of plastic pollution.
I am the white plastic
deli-bag you tossed
into a subway grate,
rising on an updraft.
I twirl my girlish way
along the avenues,
perch on that linden tree
outside your window.
I am your high branch
entanglement with soul,
out of reach.
Snug in my tree crotch,
I sag and shrivel
and yellow in your sight.
“She’s so frank and she’s so full of humor and life. I mean you wouldn’t know that she’s 90,” says Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, a special collections librarian at Bowdoin College who did an interview with Moore that’s included in the book.
Van Der Steenhoven says she loves Moore’s technique of luring in the reader with her vivid descriptions and then delivering a jab at the end.
“And then this skewering, right? This like, turn of the knife. They pull you in — they seduce you, as she says — and then she gets you,” she says.
Moore says she didn’t start writing poems until her late 40’s. She was newly divorced and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a leading center of poetry. A young woman who was a colleague and a friend had just won a major poetry prize. She urged Moore to take up writing as a sort of therapy. It worked, Moore says, although she didn’t publish her first book of poems until three years ago.
“The work is so occurrent. I mean what could be more of this moment than the poetry that she writes?” says Agnes Bushell, co-founder of Littoral Books in Portland, who only became aware of Moore last year.
Bushell says when she discovered Moore’s unusual collection of eco-poetry, she knew she had to publish it.
“She speaks from her heart but with no sentimentality. There is no sentimentality in those poems at all. They’re just brilliant gems,” she says.
In general, Moore herself takes a dim view of the planet’s future.
“The world will change so drastically that we’ll have to make amazing adjustments, dramatic adjustments, in order to fit in,” she says. “There will be some people who will be able to do it but most won’t be able to do it.”
But she also holds out hope that young climate activists like Greta Thunberg of Sweden can make a difference.
“I’m amazed at her dedication, her single-mindedness and she’s not easily diverted. She is single-minded about what she wants to do to transform peoples’ thinking. And I think that’s incredible,” she says.
Moore says had the timing worked out, she would have dedicated her book of poems to Thunberg, someone who also has a fierce desire to protect the planet.
Originally published Nov. 1, 2019 at 4:47 p.m. ET.