Apology of a Girl Who Is Told She Is Going to Hell, Devon Moore
Review by Rachel Allen
Devon Moore’s debut poetry collection, Apology of a Girl Who Is Told She Is Going to Hell, is a book of the body. Lovely and never overlarge, the collection catalogs fleshes, bones and organs. It also advances her theses about the body.
The first thing Moore believes about the body is that it exists. She tells you this from the outset: the first line of the first poem, "Red", begins: “I tell you this so that you know: There was once a body/of a woman on the beach, with legs glowing white and the fabric/of her bathing suit bodice strained.” The body precedes the line break. It also precedes the woman.
Moore does this thing again and again, separating the “body” from whatever else a person is. In "The Caged Girl Wishes that the Man in the Volcano Was Free like Her", her speaker is “most afraid/of the man and the body of the man”; in "A Skeptic Looks up the Brooklyn Bridge, Shivers", “We didn’t have time to brace our bodies/for the movement of the world and ourselves.” Moore is corporeal wherever she can be, representing “the body,” as well as all its nameable functions and parts: “fat and breasts and muscles” ("Red"), “these calluses along the soles of my feet” ("Anti-Sonnet"), “the irregular shapes/that broken bones make” ("And They Say Cats Always Land on Their Feet"), “a perforation in a vein” ("Grave"), “a simple small hairless vagina” ("Motion Sick").
Moore’s insistence on the body as the thing, not just the container for the thing, seems partly connected to the rejection of religion alluded to in the title. References to lapsed Christianity are frequent, as in "After Driving Wildly to a Watermelon Patch One Summer", which has her speaker “Contemplat[ing] [her] lack of Christianity, except that one time,/aged eight, when [she] laid [her] hands upon the TV.” Even more frequent are references to hurt bodies, especially dying bodies, especially her father’s. (In "The Skeleton Pier", Moore makes gorgeous mention of her near-dead father removing the restraints put on him for his own safety: “the disassembled straitjacket splayed out/like flayed skin drying across a cannibal’s hearth.”) If Christianity promises an eternal and altogether less bodied existence, I wondered if by centering corporeality, Apology was proposing an alternative.
The second thing Moore believes about the body is that it fails.
In recent years, when poets have prioritized the body (especially the suffering body, as Moore does in her many references to injury and illness), they have often done so to consider certain kinds of embodiment within a larger system. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a book about bodies, but those bodies are black, just as the bodies in Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s I’m Alive/It Hurts/I Love It are specifically trans and queer.
Sometimes, in Apology, the body is a girlbody and suffers for it. Moore speaks to the mortifications of inhabiting a female body, writing, in "Red", “Shame, the kind caused by going to school with stains/on your sweatpants, the same shirt for a month, for a year,/sticks to your ribs like fat. We teach ourselves shame/of our fat and breasts and muscles, too.” It is in keeping with Moore’s materialist conception of the body that she has her shame speak its own name, rather than metaphorizing it. In "The Caged Girl Wishes that the Man in the Volcano Was Free like Her" she again traces dysmorphia (“a lifetime of wishing on my imperfections, on my not/too taut belly, on my slightly smaller right eye, on my less full/left breast”) and compares it to the humiliation of high school (“the pit of my guilt that says you enjoyed it,/you enjoyed it, and I swallowed fire like a geek does/and this isn’t high school anymore.”). Hating one’s body and hating high school are two not entirely separable pillars of a certain kind of girlhood. Reading Moore, part of me thought, “yes, can’t talk about being a girl without talking about being ashamed of your body.” Another part thought, “but maybe we should try?” The parts of me never came to a consensus.
Still, though Moore’s body sometimes suffers for being gendered, it more often suffers just for being a body. Her father’s terminal illness and death are examined in painful detail, as are the particulars of cremation and decomposition. In "A Word a Person Couldn’t Know", one of several prose poems in the Apology, Moore writes, “She wasn’t wading in the brown-/leather cowboy boots her father wore to the funeral home’s furnace, but she/wanted to be. When his bones went to dust, what that part of her wanted most/was to scream real loud a word a person couldn’t know...” "A Word", like the handful of other prose poems in the collection, is written in the third person (most of the poems in Apology switch between first and second) and reads like a fable. These little tales put death against girlhood and the effect is not juxtaposition but the realization they’ve gone together all along.
The third thing Moore believes about the body that it sees and wishes to be seen.
There’s a broken love running through Apology, a couple at its center who can’t make it work. That the couple cannot see each other seems like an obvious metaphor, but Moore takes it so far that it isn’t. The lover says to the speaker in "Barcelona in May" “‘You know, it’s always going to be like this,/...‘I’m always going to look through you.’” In "Exhibit she extends the metaphor out, connecting love-object to art-object while with her boyfriend at a museum. Through an open Staff Only door, the speaker glimpses a “black stone sculpture...the size of a grown man’s/head, or a cabbage and a half.” From this sighting, she pivots to splitting off from her partner (he’s going to the photography, she wants to see the paintings): “I turned,/and waited for your eyes./When you didn’t look back,/I saw your black-coated figure get smaller/and farther,/until the back of your head became indistinguishable to me/from the moving heads of all the other men.” Pulling together her acts of ephemeral and unreturned witness, the speaker thinks “how lonely it must be/to be a black stone sculpture in a museum/but not on display./To be an exhibit/(of longing/or of love)/but to be this unseen.”
(This connection between art-looking and love-looking is furthered by Moore’s insistence on the body as a structure. Bones structures fixate her, especially spines. She imagines her mother’s “vertebrae,/a column of perfect white marble” ("Bone Memory"). She thinks of her father’s “before the tumors moved, hinged/black masses on white spine” ("The Skeleton Pier"). Moore describes her spines so coolly that I thought of them as Mapplethorpe flowers, stark white and minimalist.
Moore also has her speakers visiting artworks in Florence and in Paris and occasionally doing drawings of their own. In the overlaps of looking at art and looking at body architectures, Moore makes describing the body an ekphrastic act in itself.)
Moore is concerned with love and visibility. Her speakers are most wounded when they are unseen; they imagine their greatest capacity to wound is in looking away. It is therefore an act of love, I think, for Moore to look so closely at her dying father’s body. Lines like “I had almost forgotten/the way his stomach bile had erupted/through the hole in his abdomen, corroding away/the soft stomach flesh” ("Patricide") hurt and are disgusting, but they’re Moore’s postmortem “I love you.” (I also had a father who died young in an ugly way. Witnessing the indignity of a dying body may
The written-looking is also an act of penance. In "Visitations", Moore writes that on “His last night/I was there resting my ears on the couch,/but his death wanted me/ to stay awake for it./I couldn’t,” and, in "Inheritance", “when my father lay dead in a cardboard box coffin,/I touched his skin, but heard nothing./I left him to blister and splinter/alone.” The second-to-last poem in the collection, "Patricide", has her raising her father from the dead to ask his forgiveness. She looks hard at the illness in reverse: “the abscesses on his backside fill in with flesh/the burn from the stomach acid shrinks,/and the tiny black tumors uncoil themselves/from around his nerve roots, unclamping,/retreating, vertebra by vertebra,/to the smooth pink flesh of his throat.” Looking is so inseparable from loving for Moore that her failure to witness the last moments of her father’s life feels like a betrayal. She concludes "Visitations" by asking him to die again: “this time, I promise, I’ll watch.”
Moore’s acts of looking have culminated in a collection that feels like a small religion. The body is an ugly failed thing and a thing worth loving -- that is what Moore made me believe.