Most Ancient of All Splendours
I do not read a great deal of poetry, not as much as I should, certainly, and, having never shed my preferences for strict metrical and rhyme schemes, I read very little contemporary poetry. In theory, therefore, I shouldn’t have read Johann Moser’s collection of poems, and, having read it, I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did read it, and I did like it, and sometimes the world is a surprising place.
These poems reveal a poet steeped in history, with wide interests and sympathies. There are poems about Alexander the Great, about the great medieval monastery of St Gall, about Mozart, about Venice, about Gilgamesh, about Galileo, about World War II, about Erasmus, about Solzhenitsyn. There are poems based on musical forms — the caccia, the barcarolle, the berceuse — and there are poems of lament and poems of praise.
There are no poems of rhyme.
Moser is obviously a man of wide education, and an educated reader will be better positioned to understand and appreciate the poems, but they are far from dryly intellectual. On the contrary, a notable qualities of many of these poems is their sensual tangibility, the way they conjure up sights and scents, so that the reader feels present in the past:
Over studded mountains,
High-timbered slopes of the Absaroka,
Storms of summer, swarthy-throated,
thundering down the valleys.
Dust whirls on sagebrush hills,
Lightning brindles blackened skies.
Rain over grassy tablelands and wooded hollows,
Over white-bouldered rivers
and bottomlands of cottenwood and aspen;
Slender sheaves of rain —
Purple, gold, across the wilderness,
Trailing to bronze-rimmed prairies eastward.
The glittering pinnacles of cloud and sun;
Glad arroyos splash,
dazzle amid canyons.
through tender-dripping forests
And wet bark of giant spruce,
Fragrant in the valley winds.
Among clusters of gooseberry leaves,
A black bear shrugs his dusky hide;
A puma sniffs the clear, cool air.
Birds are singing in the mountains.
— “Wyoming Rain”
That’s a highly irregular meter to deal with, but it certainly reminds me of the rain storms I experienced as a child on the prairies; I can feel the wind and hear the rain as they sweep across the land.
Here is an excerpt from a more metrically regular (and in that respect also more characteristic) poem, about the Battle of Riade between the Franks and the Magyars:
Then, at Riade, we mustered our brave legions,
Mounting high before us the lofty Whalebone Rood
and Holy Lance of Imperial Constantine.
Over us, unsteady heavens of storm and sunlight;
Packed battalions sloshed in river shallows,
Their kirtles soaked and steaming in the morning heat.
The thud, flash of weaponry; shouts, assaults,
Trumpets honking like wild geese within the bracken,
Sword-hilts slippery with blood and rain
As thick carnage clotted marshy rivulets and streams,
And mounted spearmen butted, wallowed in the mud.
Finally, rearing our banners upwards, we invoked
Lord Saba-ôth, Hoarder of Sky’s Kingdom,
From whose stout-thonged, strong-thewed gauntlet
Angelic Mika-El, fierce sparrow-hawk,
Swooped downwards through thunder-driven clouds,
Bearer of Sun’s blazoned baldric,
Golden-armored, Barb of the Sacred Tempest,
Felled before him the heathen host
That fled to craggy tors, the dense holt and hinterland.
— from “Henry the Fowler”
If, like me, you’d not given much thought to the Battle of Riade, or even, like me, never heard of it before, perhaps you find, as I do, that the poem is nonetheless evocative and exciting. It is rare to find modern poetry that can summon religious imagery and language without losing for a moment its muscular power, but Moser does it here. Just as rare is a poet who both knows and loves the long cultural tradition we have inherited — or could inherit, with enough labour, attention, and love.