Sally Buckner

Voices From Two Generations:

A Review of Lenard Moore and Gary Copeland Lilley

A Temple Looming, by Lenard D. Moore, WordTech Editions,
Cincinnati, Ohio, 2008, 80 pgs., ISBN 1934999105, $17.00

Alpha Zulu, by Gary Copeland Lilley, Ausable Press, Keene, NY,
2008, 112 pgs., ISBN 1931337381, $14.00

This year has seen the emergence of two notable collections by
African American poets with strong ties to North Carolina. Both
books are comprised almost entirely of word-portraits. Each
immerses us in a particular segment of Americana, centering on
remarkably varied individuals and employing dramatically different
forms and styles.

Lenard Moore has been an active member of the state’s literary
community since the 1970s. A Temple Looming, his fifth collection,
began in 1995 as an interdisciplinary project, pairing poet
Moore with visual artist Sherman Jenkins, and has been fleshed out
by other more recent verses.

You won’t turn many pages before experiencing dejá vu, for surely
somewhere, sometime you’ve come across an old photo album, one
that takes you back into the early part of the twentieth century and
skims through coming decades. The poems limn the experience of a
diverse assemblage of African American men, women, and, occasionally,
children in language as spare as most of the photographed subjects.
Moore’s titles shift our mental lenses into focus: “An Album of
Old Men”; ”Cotton-Pickers, Circa 1905”; “Rebecca in a Rattan
Chair”; “Beyond Black”; “Woman Waiting on a Park Bench.”

Moore’s early reputation was built on haiku, for which he won
national and international awards and which he has served by heading
both the Haiku Society of America and the North Carolina Haiku
Society. So it is not surprising that several of the poems are comprised
of a series of haiku, many of which are worthy to stand alone:

          She sits in an empty background
          glassy-eyed, entirely plain
          and stirred as hair in gusty wind
                                        “Still-Life Woman”

          In the dark tube of his throat,
          his stories of family, framing ancestors,
          remain hushed, soft wind

          the barrel-straight stare
          of his pure black face
          shines like a bullet.
                                        “The Soldier”

As one would expect from a haiku specialist, the images, provided
in precise language, are sharp as newly-honed razors. Consider a
line from “This Black Man”: “He waits, sheened as a leaf.” In
“Women in a Photo Album,” two women “stare sorrow out / to
the bone.” while the tall subject in Still-Life Woman” is described
as “an endless stream/ of woman, long limbs stilled in time.” One
title “Frazzled” (a wonderfully evocative word we now use too seldom)
itself hints at an image, and the penultimate line provides a
strong one: “No man can wipe away that bluesy frown.”

Moore is especially adept in endings that snap the poem to its
proper closure:

          What you do not say
          and any talk of joy
          is postponed
          in the pupils of your eyes
                                        “Mister Man”

          Where [a man who shines shoes] stands now
          in simple smock,
          auctioned men stood in single file
                                        “No Utopia”

In “Frame,” three short lines sum up the portrait of a woman in a
checkered cotton dress: “Her poised body/ so full of pride/ in a
house-cleaning world” In “Man” the narrator tells us that “my
memory/ reunwinds/ to a similar frame/my grandfather groomed/
when I was/ somewhere in boyhood.” Reunwinds—what a forceful
neologism! And “somewhere in boyhood” resonates for each
reader, male or female.

“It Begins with the Middle Passage” ends without an image, but
the stark language prods us to consider multiple meanings: “The
way children are/ becoming who they are reveals/ their story is
deeper than skin.”

As is evident in these examples, most of Moore’s poems are free
verse, generally written in short lines. Others, such as “Innocence”
are rhymed quatrains. Although almost all of these word-snapshots
involve persons, occasionally we’re given a landscape.

          A column of shut barns
          like boxes sealing old memories.
                                        “Abandoned Farm”

          a stand of long-leaf pines
          spaced just enough to hold ghosts
          behind an uneven fence.
                                        “The Old Sycamore’s Limbs,”

All of these poems are quiet monochromes. Although colors are
sometimes named when describing clothing or “purple cloud
patches,” or “a bright blue sheet of sky,” somehow the photographs,
whether portraits or landscapes, come across as black-andwhite.
“Up the road, morning light /whitewashes everything,”
Moore says in “The Old Sycamore’s Limbs.” His word-pictures
appear in a sleek black, white, and grey, as if washed in pearl in a
silver gelatin print.

Moore’s democratic vision is in full display. Each of the subjects—
whether a housewife, a sharecropper’s son, or a man in a
medallion-adorned uniform and plumed hat— is treated with dignity,
with neither ridicule nor veneration. Moore simply focuses his
lens on telling details. He is never cynical, and—unusual in this
time—rarely ironic. His voice never rages, not even when speaking
of—or hinting at— tragedy or injustice.

From “Women in a Photo Album”:

          These are women
          with stories swelling their bellies
          when language is mute

          as ashes in the wind
          or dust hanging in the air
          passing slowly over earth.

From “Cotton Pickers, Circa 1905”:

          Four faces glisten,
          empty eyes,
          nothing can change
          this family’s
          lack of smiles.

Or consider “Beyond Black,” in which nine lines treat the lasting
effects of some of our nation’s worst abominations:

          Black goes beyond your shaven jaw,
          your tweed coat,

          the twisted tie.

          Scarred valleys furrow your face.
          Reflected in your eyes,

          The lynchings of the twenties.

          Why are you alone?
          The possibilities go

          beyond this photograph.

A lesser poet might spray the page with fury. Moore quietly presents
a powerful lamentation.

“At Six O’Clock” gives us four black boys “looking content in
unmatching suit coats” as they “aim their eyes into the future,”
utterly “unlike evening news” which features clicking handcuffs,
skidding cars, “bludgeons rising into the air.” It’s a masterful
social/political statement without a single bark or screech. Whole
films and novels have been constructed with less effect.

In one way Moore’s poems are deceptive: they seem so simple, so
accessible, with meaning arising from even a quick scanning. But
heed those little warning bells going off in your head: there is much
more to be gleaned from repeated readings, psychological and cultural
truths woven into the quiet language.


Although A Temple Looming and Alpha Zulu both focus on
human beings who do, after all, share a common humanity—the
collections are vastly dissimilar. For one thing, Gary Copeland
Lilley’s characters live in circumstances very different from
Moore’s. Lilley is originally from Sandy Cross in Nash County,
North Carolina, but he spent long years in D.C. and Chicago
before moving to Swannanoa just outside Asheville, and the poems
in this volume reflect his urban life and his naval experience as
much as, maybe more than his years in small Southern towns.

Furthermore, whereas with few exceptions Moore is looking at and
speaking of his subjects, Lilley’s subjects mostly speak for themselves.
In the title poem “Alpha Zulu,” the speaker describes himself
as “a man who’s gathered too many addresses/ too many goodbyes.
There’s not much money/ or time left to keep on subtracting
from my life.” Imbibing bourbon, he takes comfort in his notion
“that in the small hours/ even God drinks alone.”

Alpha stands for the first of anything (including the Greek alphabet),
and in recent years has come to represent the strongest, most
dominate male in any group, human or beast. Zulu is the name of
a tribe in eastern South Africa. The narrators of most of these
poems are indeed African American Alpha males, and their voices
are firm, declarative, occasionally defiant. Some of their statements
seem destined to be inscribed on posters or bumper stickers:

From “Justice”: We make our own small mercies.

From “Porno”: Loneliness depreciates with age.

From “The Hanged Man”: I was a long night past being sober.

Several poems follow a narrative line. In twelve stanzas
“Anonymous” gives us a cast fit for a play or novel: Pap, the itinerant
preacher-grandpa; Gran, who taught in the Negro school and
lined up family members on Sundays “marching to Zion;” a greatuncle
who killed a man, then became “a minor prophet” and a
card-playing waiter; an aunt who “did hair”; and a grandson, college-
educated, but homeless, who “calls for the fall of the wicked…
to carpet the walk of the almost righteous.” Pap’s youngest son
gets four hard lines:

          The youngest boy joy rode a car,
          got two years, judge offered a choice.
          He gave me his dog and went to Nam
          and died. His flag is folded and boxed.

Those lines leave me breathless.

Other dramatic poems are shorter, but provide quick vignettes. For
example, “Cicada:” Lola and Webster, two who fled Katrina to
North Carolina are seen in a “dark suit and donated dress. God
snatched/ this old man and woman from everything/ but each other,
and blessed them to have just that,” with “a peep of red flowers in
the woodchips/ and weeds by the door of their motel room.” In
”Revelle,” a man sits on a porch waiting for a jar of shine, “the
best known liquor in the dry county,” sold where “the ramshackle
Baptists come to dance…” But he’s really waiting for a glance of
“the woman everybody wants/ [who] walks on both sides of the
road”—code words for her bisexuality. The narrator of
“Unmarked Grave” speaks to his unmourned grandfather whose
children spent “all holidays/waiting the big Buick to pull in the
yard.” Remembering the old man’s drinking and cussing, he sneers,
“Pistol, you burned your people like a torch,” and reminds him
that “none of your blood will bring a flower/ and nobody but me
will cut this grass.”

Several poems are written from the point of view of a submariner,
reflecting Lilley’s own experience in the U.S. Navy Submarine
Force. In “Submarine Patrol: Mid-Watch Entry, 01 Jan,” the
speaker tells us “I’m always amazed/ how twenty-four hours submerged
narrows/ the focus and syncopates me with machinery”. In
“My Mother Asks, Will It Kill Me?” the narrator admits his claustrophobia,
born of the submarine experience: “ I won’t live/ in a
basement apartment. I find/ no comfort under low ceilings…/ I
can’t stand being contained.” So of course he doesn’t want to be
buried in a casket, fights with his mother for the right to cremation,
knowing he will probably lose and “will be with them/ in my
purgatory/ of a hole in the ground.”

On the whole I don’t like prose poems, but “Ranter on the Corner
of Babylon and Manhattan” could be written no other way. The
wild ramble of words and sentences and images turn in on one
another with GOD occurring every third line or so. It’s a pity to
excerpt it— for one thing, it’s difficult to know where to begin,
where to end—but here’s a sample:

          …I got history on a deadline I got hell fear on ice please visit
          the attacks don’t leave without the word listen to your cell
          phone tell me whose voice it was called our heroes home GOD
          almighty violence death is your duct tape stop stop the devil’s
          in a fury condom nation GOD the whole world of Gonzo
          gives a memorial then take a closer look and a date is the date
          the stakes the many avenues of animal care at the wreckage
          watching GOD points your coke-filled nose…

Had James Joyce ever been caught in the horror of war, he might
have written these lines.

Another prose poem “A Correctional Facility Lesson on What
Integrity Is” gives us a convict-narrator who tells us of “swoll-up
bastards always walking the joint with a damn swagger,” and of
the eventual— and inevitable—conflict he has with one. As prose,
the story moves along well enough: “That night he was still prancing
when the dorm lights went down and the blue lights came on,
before he could get his night vision I was behind him and hit him
with the shiv in the side. He didn’t know what it was until the second
one took him in the lung.” Tough stuff; however, I believe that
were the lines aligned like a poem, they would pack even more
power. As evidence, look at still another poem about conflict, “Six
of Wands Reversed.” The narrator, one of a pair of hold-up men,
tells his partner

          …You get no bullets
          because you’re certain to trip
          and shoot somebody and all we want
          is the money. I’m going to keep
          the loaded piece. I’m the better
          shot… No discussion. I have no love
          for the department of corrections.

Note how the rhythms of lines and the way line endings emphasize
meaning sharpen the impact.

These are only two of the characters who defy law and community
morality. “Boneman” is narrated by a hit man who describes the
“art” of his bone-breaking, from arms to foot, to leg, to thigh.
Psychopath? Surely. If his story doesn’t chill you, nothing will. But
we get a different take on violence in “Penitence at the All Local
Calls Fifty Cents Confessional.” Here the narrator tells us about his
double-dysfunctional family and his mother’s second husband who
burned down his mother’s house. “That’s why you don’t/ see any pictures
of us as kids, no trophies, / no awards, no certificates for perfect
attendance.” The ending of this story is too good to give away.

But lest we think Lilley is stuck on losers and brawlers, read “The
Temperature at Which Blood Flows,” in which a man watches his
son split firewood and take it “to my mother’s kitchen/where
they’ll have their cups and talk/ close to the stove.” Or “American
Rapture at 13 Degrees,” in which a cleaning woman uses the tickets
her boss gave her to take her son to a football game. The guy
who makes the winning touchdown runs to the stands and hands
the ball to her son, “and my boy/ is jumping and screaming. The
noise/ of the frost-bit crowd cannot drown him out / his passion fills
me like I have 2 hearts.”

And despite the often mean situations and meaner characters,
humor isn’t lacking. “It’s About the Ponies” tells us of “a man of
bad habits/ and he’s as mad as the first wife of a bigamist.” “Nine
of Wands” describes the shopping carts of the homeless: “parked
like buses/ just waiting for a tourist with a Polaroid.”

These two collections complement each other nicely. Moore’s
album freezes its subjects in time and attitude so that we can contemplate
them as if they were portraits in a museum. Lilley’s poems
are videos, robust voices accompanying vigorous motion. As we try
to make sense of the tangled human experience, we need both perspectives
and both approaches.

A happy note: both poets are currently teaching, Moore at Mount
Olive College, Lilley at Warren Wilson College. Their talents can
become multipliers if students take full advantage of the learning
opportunities each can offer.