Saturday, August 8th, 2009...11:07 pm

lawrence welsh | todd moore’s riddle: obscurity, redemption and fame

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Todd Moore & Lawrence Welsh

aaaaaaIn the annals of American poetry, Todd Moore is an anomaly. The author of more than 100 books and chapbooks during the past 40 years, he’s both known and unknown at the same time. In fact, Moore is regarded as a legend in the underground and renegade press circles, yet no university or mainstream press has touched his work, except for a few well-regarded anthologies.

aaaaaaWhat’s needed now, then, is a selected poetry by a major press with wide distribution. There’s no poet in America more deserving. Until that time, however, we’re lucky enough to get a new, large chunk of his work with The Riddle of the Wooden Gun, which Lummox Press published earlier this year.

aaaaaaAs a new installment in his 35-year-old Dillinger epic, Riddle is a first-rate romp into the heart and soul of the American dream. It’s a dream that’s so close to actuality that it’s eerie in its portentousness and its real-life dramas. But the wooden gun, which sometimes exists in reality, is also a ghost or spirit that no one can fully pin down.

aaaaaaFor the gun shows up, disappears and then appears in another’s memory or world. In a sense, then, it seems like we’ve all owned a wooden gun or have possessed one in our life. It can take shape as a dead relative, a lousy job, a gone girlfriend, a dead lover, a drinking or dope curse, a lemon for a car. In Moore’s world, they’re all metaphors for wooden guns:

“wish i knew
whatever
became of
the wooden
gun my
daddy sd
it got burnt
in a house
fire down
in kentucky…”

aaaaaaThe gun also inhabits and serves as a symbol for the spirit world – both the dark and light realms — and can switch in another’s memory or fantasy into a talisman or trickster as important as an ancient crucifix or medicine pipe. In this sense, the reader sees how New Mexico, the land of enchantment, has affected Moore and slipped under his skin during his life there the past 15 years. For no other state in America is as infused with ancient Christianity, Native American blood and new age alchemy as New Mexico:

“it was the
wooden
gun that
had every
one edging
back toward
the wall
some kind
of black
energy was
twisting
off the wooden
gun &
just hanging
in the
air…”

aaaaaaAt the same time, the wooden gun also inhabits the world of light, healing and hope, almost like a miracle worker, prophet or saint:

“she sd
it was
good luck
to touch
& wd
heal any
sores
or wounds
& she
wanted
dillinger
to have it…”

aaaaaaBut the real heart of this first-rate book is the knowledge that there’s no end to the wooden gun, that it remains with the reader as an endless quest for what? Salvation, damnation, protection, a joke, a ruse, a shield? Perhaps none or all of the above. In essence, that’s the riddle.

aaaaaaIn the end, it’s all impossible to nail down, like a meditation session or prayer cycle; impossible to fully quantify but still essential for living, like air or water or bone — or not important at all. It’s up to the reader to decide. As one anonymous old timer tells us:

“wooden gun
stories i
got a million
of em
which one
wd you like
to hear…”

aaaaaaFor Todd Moore, the answer is, of course, every single one of them, mainly because Moore is an obsessed writer who has taken obsession into a life-changing journey. And the obsession is not only with Dillinger here and a wooden gun, but the relentless search and dedication to develop a one-of-a kind, bullet-proof voice in American poetry and letters. This obsession, which he has lived for 40 years, has significantly paid off. The Riddle of the Wooden Gun is a masterpiece.

aaaaaaNow what our nation needs is a 500 page selected poems of Todd Moore. Until that time, it’s the reader’s job to seek him out, to uncover the richness and to discover that Moore, along with the wooden gun, “are the / stuff that / dreams are / made of.”

2 Comments

  • Lawrence,

    You’ve explored places in my work and in Riddle that few others have barely thought about. I am deeply honored by this essay.

    Todd

  • Wow, Larry, I love this: “The gun also inhabits and serves as a symbol for the spirit world.” It’s a little far-fetched, but in a good way. I love the idea, and the thought of it. A great insight, Larry. Wow.

    I wonder if those of us in the literary world get bogged down too much with the idea of metaphor?

    Maybe the words should just be the words of what they are saying?

    ……..just a thought.

    I’m still of the school that a gun is a gun. Simply a metaphor for crazy violence. I love Todd’s stuff for how real it is, even as it is unreal, you know?

    [Note: Most of us don't use the branding "the land of enchantment" here in New Mexico -- that albatross was hung around our necks by some silly chamber of commerce hucksters and we can't shake it. We all cringe when we hear it.]

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