Review: "June in Eden" by Rosalie Moffett (The Ohio State University Press, 2017) / by Peter LaBerge

by David Nilsen | Guest Reviewer. 

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In Rosalie Moffett’s debut collection June in Eden, language is both a playful muse and a painful reminder of loss, a weapon and its own elusive prey. Moffett’s subject is language itself, not in a general sense, but in the fearful specificity of individual words needed and forgotten. She presents language as the skin overlaying identity; are we recognizable when that covering is ripped away by age or injury?

The catalyst for this examination is the degeneration of her mother’s memory, displayed most plainly in the older woman’s inability to remember words and names. As her mother slowly loses language, Moffett is left to contemplate who we are when our means of communication—our medium for presenting our internal selves to others—evaporates.

In June in Eden’s title poem, Moffett walks in the garden with her mother, who finds—among the constantly changing microclimate of this backyard Eden—a thing that is always just beyond her grasp, a world of lifeforms “all waiting to be named.” As often as not, those names evade her, but that is its own form of discovery.

“Here, there are things coming into being
all the time. There are so many

strawberries, as yet unmarred…”

They will be marred, of course. They will be ripe and sweet for a few days, and then rot or bruise. This tranquil poem is but a small window of peace. The broader grieving process is, of course, much more brutal. In “Taxonomy,” the loss of language has a bitter edge.

“Human brains do not renew.
No rewiring, no sweet grit to hinge

to the word pear…”

The nature of language itself occupies Moffett as she reflects on her mother’s loss of so many arbitrary sounds to which we’ve assigned meaning. In the collection’s opening poem “Revisions,” Moffett examines how tiny changes in a word—a letter added or omitted, an implication assumed and then reversed—can pull the rug out from under our sense of order and security.

“What had been
harmless, the morning dove,
looking dark and stormy, all of the sudden

that someone’s died.

You can forget even the smallest things

—a vowel, invisible, a bright drop
of blood—wheel the world
around them.”

Moffett doesn’t feel the need to complete her reader’s thoughts, trusting her carefully laid lines to form a legible fabric of meaning. In “The Family Lives on a Farm,” a late poem in a section about Moffett’s rural childhood, she tells us: 

“Most mornings,
an indigo bunting can be seen somewhere
in the orchard. The family depends on the mother

to remark nice things such as this.”

It’s a fine enough image until we think about what’s been lost beneath the mother’s slipping grip on memory and language. She filled this role, among others, for her family scraping a life from the hard work of running a peach farm in Washington. The loss isn’t announced, and it’s not the point of the poem, but it’s a subtle way for Moffett to show the quiet ways in which her mother’s descent has stolen from them all.

In June in Eden’s middle stretch, Moffett draws connections between loss of language and loss of identity, exploring her own ontology when the woman who gave birth to her and taught her to speak is being stripped of her ability to express herself. In “The Way It Works,” she struggles with disentangling her own future identity from that of the woman whose genes she shares. She says she’s aware she isn’t destined for this degeneration, but her assurances are hardly confident.

“My brothers
don’t question this, that they are separate
as moons. They don’t look

like her.”

It is here she unfolds the analogical relationship between heredity and sonic similarity. In an earlier poem, she discussed her mother’s struggle with homophones in particular, words that sound the same but are spelled differently, or hold different meanings based on context. She subtly uses this throughout the book to hint at her own anxieties over what it means for her that her mother is losing language and memory. What is a heredity but an incarnated homophone? Both play on resemblance. As “morning” turned invisibly to “mourning” in the opening poem “Revisions,” will she be her mother’s echo, fumbling in her mind for the same words that once came so easily?

She confesses she already feels this ghosting of another identity in the poem “Rosalie Ruth Moffett,” in which she relates her belief she absorbed her twin in her mother’s womb. She’s not sure what to do with this belief—it’s not a grief, or even a guilt—but it persists. She handles her middle name like a relic. Ruth is first “a kind of compassion // nobody wants anymore,” and then a name from the Bible:

“Like Ruth, the Moabite, I desire
to be something that can’t be

gotten rid of easily.”

She doesn’t want to be forgotten before birth like her twin, or to fade from community like her mother. She wants to persist, even as she sees these figures who share her appearance disappear like erased or misspelled words.

To the reader, it seems potential sources of comfort—nature, rural life—are tainted and cannot offer solace. Biology is stained with decay and predation throughout the collection, and the agrarian, pastoral life is not the simple, peaceful image it is purported to be. In “Pastoral,” Moffett almost cruelly strips rural life of its tranquil conceits, telling the reader in plain terms: 

“Don’t pretend
you would love life in the country
if you really have no idea. The days crank themselves

through that contraption that cores and peels apples.”

Despite its grim subjects, June in Eden is not without hope, or at least gentleness, which is a form of hope. It is not without beauty, though it holds a beauty that knows it, too, must fall from the strawberry vine, bruised and ruined after its ephemeral flash of sweetness. The hope is that its memory will not do the same.

 

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David Nilsen is a writer living in western Ohio. He is a National Book Critics Circle member, and his reviews and interviews have been published in The Rumpus, The Millions, The Collagist, Rain Taxi, Open Letters Monthly, and many other publications. He lives with his wife, daughter, and very irritable cat. You can follow him on Twitter as @NilsenDavid.