Oyster Boy Review 13  
  Summer 2001
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'Of Moment' by Jonathan Greene

Robert West

Jonathan Greene's Of Moment contains 51 new poems—with an average length of less than six lines. In its commitment to the miniature, it recalls Fred Chappell's C; however, whereas Chappell grounds his book in the Latin epigram, Of Moment is rooted in East Asian models, as its two translations from haiku suggest. Time and again Greene succeeds in producing something not merely brief, but exquisite. Take this untitled poem:

I leave mowing at dusk
with swallows criss-
crossing the air

like a ship
blessed by dolphin escort
I dock the tractor in the shed.

The actual image and the accompanying simile are remarkable enough, but notice the way the poems right-hand margin zigzags, mirroring the swallows' diving. And notice too the other reversals: the rhythmic as well as visual doubling back of "with swallows criss- / crossing," the switch from the trochaic fifth line to the iambic sixth as the tractor (and poem) withdraws and parks. Greene does more than describe the scene—he virtually enacts it.

These poems can seem deceptively simple; on rereading them, you usually discover you missed something the first time around—technical aspects to be sure, as with most good poets, but also sometimes complexities of attitude. The last poem, "Reading 'The Death of Woman Wang'" is a good example of this. Its five lines meditate tersely on disaster:

Quake, storm,

through the night
the coffin maker

What can we take from this? The easiest thing is to breeze through the poem, reading it simply as a carefully hewn assertion of death's relentlessness, of the natural world's indifference or even hostility toward mankind. But there is a dimension to this poem that makes it much more interesting than that—an acknowledgment that there's always profit to be made from bad times.

These poems invite us to dwell on them, to refuse the specious equation of a poem's length with the amount of attention it deserves.