A Fragile Grace and the Power of Memory
Poet Diane Marquart Moore in her latest stunning book writes of her family’s wild trip in an old blue coupe in the 1940s, chasing after her father’s dream of living in California (“Diddy Wah Diddy” to him)—from southern Louisiana across the wide country of desert and plain.
In the title poem Post Cards from Diddy Wah Diddy she writes:
Cards telling stories of being there,
yet being here, casting shadows in my life.
children taken out of school to become gypsies,
traveling cramped in the coupe’s back seat,
a blue Ford fuming into Carlsbad Caverns,
Yuma, Arizona, Juarez, Mexico,
passing smoke trees in a desert wash,
downy bushes near a railroad track ...
Diddy Wah Diddy,
the endless highway of Father’s escape
... no shades to draw against his madness. ...
Perhaps needless to say, her father’s chasing the wind westward does not end well for the family, and in the poignant poem “The Sanctity of Soap,” Diane dubs it “his rainbow adventure that produced no gold.” She later describes in the short story (also in this collection), “Diddy Wah Diddy,” how she and two siblings, trapped for the duration in the back seat of the car, “rolled into tighter balls,” terrified that their father “was going to drive us straight into hell.”
These rememberings from the adult author describe a nightmare, a crucible, an unforgettable trauma for a young girl. But the gifted writer and thinker who has emerged—not unscathed, but sound and sane—meets us on these pages armed with the power of poetry and recollection in greater tranquility.
In one of the exquisitely painful and illuminating poems in this book, “Spare the Rod,” Diane tells of her father unbuckling his double strapped belt and herding the children into the bathroom at the end of the day to punish them for the “litany of our misbehaviors” reported to him by their mother. She writes:
... the beatings and forced confessions
caused the shut down, banked fires of the heart,
breeding stunned silence, poems not making,
each stroke compelling doubt ...
Yet what shines out from the pages of Post Cards from Diddy Wah Diddy is the resilience of the soul, through hardship and family madness, losses and learning, as in her poem “Abuse,” affirming that:
... a temper spilling over
is not the final word,
does not engrave
forever upon [the child]
but upon the one
who utters the invective.
One of my favorite poems in the book is “Racing Against Age,” with its evocative imagery reminiscent of a Magritte painting:
The doors are closed
while winter walks the street,
bitter wind blustering
against a virago on a bicycle,
legs pedaling in a storm,
the old dog yipping at her heels.
At home, the soup is unmade,a drunk sun has fallen in an alley,
breath whistling in his yellow breast.
There are tales of caution
in the dry grass, skittering leaves,
the sedulous forms of winter
walking the street
carping at the cyclist,
be afraid of God, there is no time.
Pressing the bell on cold handle bars,
she rounds the last curve,
pedaling faster toward an abandoned house
where the clocks need winding,
where a mute tree,
twisted by the wind,
grows through the kitchen floor,
welcoming the light in a narrow space.
And yet, in the poet’s race against time, there are gains—wisdom becomes supple, the lessons of a childhood interrupted and scarred are allowed to spring up like flowers through cracks in the paving of a mature vocation.
Can the past ever be redeemed?
In Diane’s short story “The Death of a Patriarch,” she writes:
“All the social sins are expressed in my family, Dina reckoned. But what seemed to be hovering in the room was the strange character of that something she hadn’t felt for her family since childhood and had pushed away with brutal severity. It was love, of course.”
And, “Memory was such a whore. By the end of the month, she probably would have whitewashed all the old patriarch’s sins. ... ”
In a recent New York Times article on the “Quest to Understand How Memory Works,” Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Dr. Eric R. Kandel writes of discovering how, at the cellular level, the brain can change because of experience: “You know, in the end, we are who we are. We’re all part of what we’ve experienced.” No matter how harrowing our past, “ ... it shapes you.”
But sometimes it also leaves (as in Diane’s poem “The Fawn I”): “a fragile grace filling moments behind.”