Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Understated Grace

By Blake de Pastino

MAY 4, 1998:  If you haven't discovered Carol Moldaw yet, that may be because you don't know who you're looking for. Even though she's known in many circles outside New Mexico, in these parts, she's just different things to different people. Some folks know her as a teacher from Pojoaque, living in the quiet clutches just north of Santa Fe. Others know her as the wife of celebrated poet Arthur Sze. But still others know her as a poet of high order in her own right, a writer whose caliber has been displayed in publications like The New Republic, The New Yorker, Partisan Review and uncounted other journals and anthologies. That's the Carol Moldaw to look out for, judging by her latest book, because it's books like Chalkmarks on Stone that can really make a name for a writer.

Her second collection of poetry--and her first book in five years--Chalkmarks on Stone is a compendium of Moldaw's latest works, many of which have already been published piecemeal in those fancy magazines. But don't let her exposure in high gloss fool you; there's little that is trendy or glamorous about the poems you'll find here. Quite the contrary, they are uncommonly quiet and sere, delicate and intricate, so softly spoken that, in a sense, it's no wonder that the poet who created them could go unnoticed even by her own neighbors.

Over the course of 25 works, Moldaw gives us an object lesson in understated grace. More to the point, she gives meat to the theory that poetry is most effective when it is also most physical. Somewhat like her fellow local poet, Joseph Somoza, Moldaw tends to write verses about everyday stuff--cut flowers or cottonwood tufts, the birds of the Bosque or a rental home--only to draw those seemingly simple things into vast, beautiful metaphysics. The innocent-sounding poem called "Summer Sublet," for example, begins with a haunting image--"Sunlight sharp enough to slice/black-eyed Susans from their stems"--a warning that there's more here than meets the eye. And her poem "Seed Bolls," about the burning of cottonwood clusters, reads like a poignant treatise on mortality: "The flame flared all at once but didn't last,/leaving us bits of char and crackled seed." Even her account of a black-out in Carlsbad Caverns comes across as touchingly profound: "wasn't that hair of a second in total/quiet and darkness, though fleeting,/one of the best moments yet?"

With all of its love for the everyday, though, Chalkmarks on Stone does not make the easy mistake of overdoing the mundane. Moldaw has no fear of the exotic--no hesitation in writing a poem about Persephone, say, or using the occasional allegory to get her point across. But she is undoubtedly at her best when she combines these two elements, mixing the concrete with the spiritual, which she does to near perfection in the book's concluding segment, "Another Part of the Field." A continuous poem series that was two years in the making, "Another Part" painstakingly represents the hexagrams of the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. Moldaw recreates 63 of the traditional verses in a string of six-line poems, most of them having three "coins" or beats per line. Even though this may sound like some hokey New Age gimmick, Moldaw's homage to the I Ching is in fact earthy, material and accessible. In response to the traditional hexagram called "Darkening of the Light," for instance, Moldaw draws up a witty, six-line scene about trying on a vinyl miniskirt, with a relative looking on, cajoling, "Don't hide your light under a bushel!" In another, she writes about driving down Route 280, counting "the shades of green." In another still, her topic is nothing less than "When heaven and earth first met." Despite their obvious differences, all of these pieces flow seamlessly, and it's Moldaw's sticky, meticulous voice that holds them together.

There are times, of course, when this voice may sound a little forced. On rare occasions, like the poem "This Rain," Moldaw loses her usual, subtle rhyme scheme and instead forces a marriage between words like "urban" and "bourbon." At other times, she tries to wedge in some political statement, like her dig against WIPP in an otherwise touching love poem. But these overdone lines almost disappear among the rest of the poet's dense and curious verses. With their easy openness and Zen-flavored physicality, the poems of Chalkmarks on Stone announce a talent that readers should remember. Something tells me that we'll be hearing from it again. (La Alameda, paper, $12)


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