Reading: Jane by Howard Moss

American poet, dramatist and critic Howard Moss (1922-1987) won the National Book Award in 1972 for his selected poetry. He was the poetry editor of the New Yorker for almost forty years and a great discoverer of poets. Moss also wrote a funny illustrated book of writer’s parodies called ‘instant lives‘. I read ‘Jane’, a poem about aging:


The startling pleasures all broke down,
It was her first arthritic spring.
Inside her furs, her bones, secure,
Suddenly became a source of pain
And froze on a Saturday afternoon
While she was listening to “La Boheme.”

Strength had been her weakness, and
Because it was, she got to like
The exhilaration of catastrophes
That prove our lives as stupid as we think,
But pain, more stupid than stupidity,
Is an accident of animals in which, once caught,
The distances are never again the same.

Yet there was another Jane in Jane:
She smelled the inside of a logarithm,
And felt a Gothic arch rise in her chest,
Her clavicle widening to bear the weight
Of the two smooth plumb lines of her breasts,
The blueprints forming an enormous skirt
Around her body. Arch and star and cross
Swung like little lights inside her head,
A church and temple rising from the floor,
Nave and transept and an altar where,
Unbidden, she saw a kind of sacrifice;
The knife was in her hand, the stick, the whip;
She cried at her cruelty and cried to be
Outside of her defenses. And just then,

The windows buckled in, the paintings cracked,
The furniture went walking by itself,
All out of her control. And it was pain
That let her know she was herself again:
She wore a cloak of fire on her skin,
And power, power floated up to her.

Her first arthritic spring! How powerful, the promise of new beginnings and the clear sign of decay. Jane (Austen?) was a strong woman, but her coordinate system got messed up once she was caught in pain. She regained it by way of her imagination: She rebuilds a cathedral of her body in the beautiful third stanza. The distances and measurements are correct again. Smelling the inside of the logarithm, she is confident now, and finally becomes aware of her cruel habits.
At that moment, she loses control and understands that she is ‘herself again’. I don’t understand the ending. Is she burning herself like a witch, after she has lost control? Finally overpowered by the elements?

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