Observing the Extraordinary at Work in the Ordinary
Contributor
Written by
Julie Henderson
October 2018
Contributor
Written by
Julie Henderson
October 2018

Observing the Extraordinary at Work in the Ordinary in Big Windows, by Lauren Moseley

            Drawing inspiration from her dreamscapes, Southern roots, and the innovative rhythms and structures of Americana music, Lauren Moseley has crafted a sensual and provocative collection of poems that invites us to reevaluate the connection between our inner and outer worlds. Her debut, Big Windows, which Carnegie Mellon University Press released in February of 2018, has surfaced at a time when humanity is confronting an onslaught of social unrest, political upheaval, and aesthetic bankruptcy that often distracts us from the ecstasy we might otherwise find by tuning into our immediate environment. Each poem in this collection is a progression through the stages of disillusionment, humility, wonder, and ultimately, enlightenment.

            Moseley’s writing challenges readers to reinstate the practice of observing what the French writer, George Perec, refers to as, the infraordinary—the seemingly trivial and yet intrinsically beautiful objects and events of the everyday. She brings us to an important threshold, beyond which the boundaries of our interior landscape and those of the world that takes shape outside our minds merge and, in so doing, collapse the distance between our dreams and our reality. 

            From wrestling with the irrational mechanics of love to embracing the sanctity of her rich inner world, the speaker of these poems moves through several rights of passage that deliver her from feelings of powerlessness to a place of agency. In “Romance,” the speaker emerges in a world that has been transformed by love—a world in which she is convinced that she can manifest the impossible, and yet finds herself unable to materialize her desires: 

I am drawn to the window as if it were a fire. 

The house rattles a quarter hour, then clouds

cool their engines and streets steam

in abrupt sunlight. Hailstones cover the grass

like clover.

. . . 

Heat and ice. Earth and sky. Stop saying why

I can’t have both. I saw them together.

I almost had them.

            As the collection’s opening poem, it demonstrates Moseley’s exceptional use of surreal and vivid imagery, as well as her ability to encapsulate a universal frustration that human beings encounter when they discover they can neither dictate nor grab hold of love’s reigns. To move beyond our disappointment, we must become humble and recognize the absolute perfection that permeates even the seemingly inane and insignificant aspects of ourselves and our journeys. 

            In “Before Prayer,” the speaker begins to tap into the kind of humility that makes wonder, awe, and innocence possible again. Shifting away from any resistance to her circumstances, she accepts the universe and shows reverence for her lot in life:

 

Once, God was the thread connecting all things:

nebulae, antelope, earthquakes, workers.

Then the string snapped. A child

wailed, my debt grew, a film settled

over my eyes. An ordinary day.

It is real, this hollow inside me.

I kneel. 

            The intense pathos contained within these lines is an element that Moseley consistently weaves into each installment of this collection. This feeling gives the reader pause, demands that they penetrate their own inner world until they land on that same hollowness, and invites them to genuflect before the essence of who they are. By embracing the kind of humility the speaker displays in this poem, every thought or deed we carry out in this life becomes a benediction, or a prayer. We release ourselves from feelings of separation, loss, and helplessness and advance towards awe, gratitude, and wonder. 

            As the speaker surrenders to inner transformation, her dreams come to the fore and serve as tools for self-discovery, self-mastery, and self-determination. In “Disobedience / is the first right of being alive,” she abandons her sapless past and blossoms forth as mystical and multidimensional—never to be the same: 

I dive off the rocks and swim deeper

until the pressure

beats inside my human skin.

When I rise and break the surface,

my lungs expand like wings.

            Here, the speaker forgoes her fear of what she might become and allows the life force at work within her being not only to breathe, but to also take flight. The interplay between elements in nature that feature in this poem—a line of ash trees,/ the dry creek bed, scrub forest,/ hollows without their owls—and the speaker’s psyche reveals the intimate relationship between her inner and outer worlds. Just as everything in nature happens in its own time, the speaker comes into her own at the precise moment her transformation is required. She starts to become, on an inner level, the beauty that she sees in the world around her. 

            With this transformation, there comes a massive shift in the speaker’s tone and voice. It seems the power she has accessed has left her with a sense of invincibility that surfaces during an imagined confrontation with the devil in “The Sound I’ll Make”: 

 

[The sound I’ll make]

when I meet the devil will break the backs of bees. I’ll say, Let the clatter come,

and it will be so. 

            

            In these lines, the speaker asserts a kind of biblical authority and influence over the forces of darkness and evil. She assigns herself the power to set in motion all manner of ruckus and commotion, which she implies would disarm the devil himself and put him in his place: 

 

Hound muzzle digging in fur, tongue at new wound, and down the avenue

sewers flood, churn, spill airplane bottles, dolls’ heads, and dominoes. 

… 

slicing pruning shears, crackling toe joints and twigs, birled logs

down the pile, a mile of starlings muttering to themselves. But no sound

summoned will match the cat-gut strings, the singing claws, the horse’s hair aflame.

Voice of my flesh crying up from the ground: a beat as soft as the beast himself. 

 

            The sardonic tone in this poem creates an incendiary tension in the collection. It is a tension that pits good against evil, strength against weakness, and confinement against liberation. Suddenly self-aware and in touch with her true worth, the speaker becomes a threat to any body, system, or idea that serves to limit what she can become—which is everything

            At this point, the speaker has survived the journey from disillusionment to humility to wonder. She has come to recognize her intrinsic value. In her dreams she sees her own expansion and achieves freedom from a life of triviality. With her imagination unhinged and the borders between her inner and outer worlds dissolved, the speaker enters into a new, sophisticated romance—this time, without needing to control the experience. Instead, she surrenders to the shape her environment takes, knowing that everything she sees is sacred—knowing that everything within and without is in tune. 

            In the final poem of this collection, “Thanks Be to Big Windows,” the speaker relaxes into a softer, more receptive, and yet still remarkably empowered space. She names what she sees, and what she sees, she becomes:

Winter vegetables 

on the windowsills

glass drawing lines

between warmth and cold

rottings and ripenings

branches ink-black in silhouette

the writing spider’s finished web

when I woke up in the morning

I knew exactly what I was

            In the act of observing a thing, we do not simply validate its existence. Rather, we become a participant, an agent, or a catalyst in its evolution. The distance between what we areand what weseeoutside of us disappears, until we become what we observe—the vegetables, the windowsill, panes of glass, life in its beginning stages and life that has begun to decay, the trees in view, the spider spinning its web—everything. Thanks be to the windows that we see through clearly, and thanks be to the beauty we become when we release ourselves from the illusion of separation. Moseley shows us that in moments when our inner and outer worlds are in sync—when we perceive the extraordinary at work within the ordinary—we grab hold of heat and ice, Earth and sky at once. We can imagine the impossible—and also have it. 

 

References

Moseley, L. (2018). Big Windows. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press.

 

 

An Interview with Lauren Moseley

August 19, 2018

 

            I have made a habit of expressing my gratitude to authors whose work has either offered crucial guidance or inspired me to ante up and polish my verse. Moseley is no exception, and I was thrilled when she agreed to answer a few questions in the following informal interview conducted via email:

 

Henderson:Regarding your opening poem, “Romance,” in Big Windows, this piece reminds me of the Taoist concept that nothing can ever be contained—that nature is ever elusive and always escapes our grasp. However, when the poem’s speaker observes “heat and ice/Earth and sky” together, I think she actually succeeds in having both at once. We don’t necessarily need to touch a thing to make it real.  

 

Moseley:Yes, absolutely. At this point in the book (the very beginning!), I think of the speaker as more interested in and experienced with the romance/infatuation side of love or lust, rather than the more grounded form of love that is explored later in the book. The speaker feels disappointed at the end of the poem because she thinks she can’t have both grounded love (“earth”) and dramatic love (“sky”) at once, but I think you’re right—she can (just look at the poem “Onions,” which is about the husband figure, in Part Three)! She just doesn’t know how to recognize it yet, or hasn’t found the beloved who can embody both forms yet. 

 

Henderson:Regarding the poem, “The Ash Field”: for me, this poem expresses Totality (being and becoming, Alpha & Omega, the collective and the individual, the micro/macro, emptiness and fullness, life and death, creation and destruction—all of these as elements of a single continuum).  Even the epigraph that you chose for this poem argues in favor of unity/totality, which is a concept that is exceedingly difficult to put into words. Can you pinpoint an experience or moment in your life when you felt like you accessed Totality? 

 

Moseley:I cannot pinpoint a specific moment exactly, perhaps because I try to be mindful, as often as possible, or at least when I’m writing poems, of how everything is connected. This helps me to write unified poems not only in terms of content, but also in terms of style, music, and form. Sometimes I use narrative sense to connect point A to point B (or point A to point Z); sometimes assonance, consonance, or a straight-up hard rhyme; sometimes other formal similarities (such as a repeated line length or rhythm), etc. “The Ash Field” was inspired by a dream (the dream that the poem describes) and by reading Jean Valentine’s work, and it was also written in an attempt to renounce feelings of powerlessness. I exercised my authorial power by making the speaker a giant and by having the horse live. Of course, it’s just a dream, it’s just a poem, but “The Ash Field” gives me a sense of calm or confidence every time I reread it, and I hope it does the same for the reader. 

 

Henderson:There were likely poems that did not make it into this collection. Name one of those poems—maybe the last one to be removed from the manuscript. 

 

Moseley:Great question. For many months, a poem called “The River Is the Sea” was a linchpin in the manuscript—in fact, that was the manuscript’s original title. In that poem, the speaker is sexually assaulted by a stranger in a European city late at night, but she screams and is able to escape before it’s too late. “The River Is the Sea” has been read at a campus Take Back the Night event, and it was originally published in Cimarron Reviewand later anthologized in Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. I’m still proud of that poem, but it was inspired by something that happened to me fourteen years ago, it has done some good work out in the world, and in the end, I realized that it didn’t truly fit in the manuscript that would become Big Windows. Was I hanging on to the poem because it had been published twice and was one of my more popular poems? Probably. Beyond reasons motivated by the structure of the book itself, I also realized I was ready to move forward from the experience that inspired the poem, and removing the poem from the manuscript was a final, liberating step in the healing process. 

 

Henderson:How did you decide to organize the collection? Why did you begin with “Romance” and end on “Thanks Be to Big Windows”? What was the intention behind the order of these poems? 

 

Moseley:In terms of the overall organization, I’ve always loved the aesthetics of works of art that are in three parts—a three-act play, a triptych, or a photograph composed by the rule of thirds—so I decided to try out grouping the poems into three sections. I wanted each section to start strong and end strong—that’s part of the reason why I decided to start and end with the two poems you mention, because they’re two of my favorites as well, and, I feel, appropriate “intro” and “outro” poems. Choosing a title for this collection was a difficult task, but when an editor friend suggested I call it Big Windows, I noticed how essential the window imagery was to these framework poems (and to the collection as a whole), and the title clicked into place. But more thought went into the structure than that: I wanted the first section to include some of the strongest poems in the book and clearly (or as clearly as this poet can) present the speaker’s struggles. Then, I wanted the second section to take a darker turn and for the conflict to intensify. For the third section, I didn’t want to tie everything up in a pretty little bow, but I did want to at least grasp towards resolution, and I wanted the speaker and reader to feel more empowered and at peace. The three sections also enabled me to have three beginnings and endings, and I could build crescendos or decrescendos towards the end of each section, which helped me make the book more dynamic. You mentioned evolution in your reading notes, and I did want the speaker’s evolution over the course of the book to be apparent to the reader. To go back to “Romance” and “Thanks Be to Big Windows” specifically, perhaps the speaker’s growth is especially discernible when these two poems are compared.  

 

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