Clare Best reviews All the Men I Never Married by Kim Moore (Seren, 2021)
In her fascinating interview with Lenni Sanders for The Poetry Business, Kim Moore expresses her interest in “moving away from the idea of the passive reader to an active reader – to a style of reading that implicates the reader and challenges them, and asks them to bring their own experiences and ideas to what they are reading”. In the case of All the Men I Never Married, Kim Moore’s masterful second collection, which consists of forty-nine poems, each of which has at its core an interaction with a man or a boy, I’ve gladly accepted the poet’s invitation to engage actively with the poems – and with their subject matters of everyday sexism, sexual violence, female desire – in the light and shade of my own encounters with these complex subjects.
I would like to have attended one of the live events where Moore involved the audience (through a series of polls) in the choice and order of material she performed from her creative / critical PhD thesis ‘Poetry and Everyday Sexism’ which included many of the poems later collected in All the Men I Never Married. Her account of how this kind of performance altered everyone’s experience of the material is compelling, and Moore cites as important the effect on one audience member who contacted her afterwards, expressing deep discomfort “as if she was participating in the violence I was reading about … I’d succeeded in that moving of the reader from a place of passivity to feeling implicated somehow. I think that feeling of discomfort is the place for potential change and transformation … the place I want to get to.”
I have a lot of time for this view. As a survivor of child sexual abuse I’ve had to dwell with discomfort, and latterly I’ve chosen to explore the substance of it more and more. But even now, when taboos are finally being broken down, I find that there is too little art, theatre, film, too few books and events and performances which skilfully open up arenas of discomfort in a nuanced way, and make them habitable.
All the Men I Never Married dares to explore the infinite and subtle complexities of its subject matters with intelligence, wit and compassion
All of this is to express heartfelt thanks to Kim Moore for writing these poems, and to Seren for publishing this bold and truthful book. It succeeds in being inclusive, insistent, cumulatively powerful. It dares to explore the infinite and subtle complexities of its subject matters with intelligence, wit and compassion.
The ordinariness of the language itself lends a grounded authority to what the poet presents. This is how it is. These are the facts. And in ‘1’, Moore states how challenging the task is: “when I whisper your names / it isn’t a curse or a spell or a blessing / I’m not mourning your passing or calling you here // this is something harder / like walking alone / in the dusk and the leaves”.
Ordinary language brings into relief the insidious normality of sexism, reminding us that danger is often close – that it too is ordinary. This is well suggested in ‘7’, where the seemingly tiny incident of a man brushing a drop of water from a teenage girl’s thigh becomes symbolic of much greater transgressions:
You don’t remember his face or his clothes,
just the drop of water, perfectly formed on your thigh,
before it’s lifted up and away by his finger.
You remember this lesson your whole life,
that sliver / shiver of time, that moment in the sun.
What am I saying? Nothing. Nothing happened.
The poet never tells us things, she invites us to climb in to each poem and realise what is going on. The number and variety of subjects and forms creates a palpable sense of gathering weight: there is an awful lot going on in this book. In my reading of it, a feeling of burden built and built, until I was aware all at once, almost unbearably, of the full range of fear and maladjustment that has been established by chronic sexism and endemic sexual violence, to the point where girls and women suffer, or witness suffering, in seemingly endless cycles. And so, too often, the dysfunctional can outweigh or overwhelm the functional. In this, too, the book accurately represents life.
Moore keeps nudging us to recall the basic underlying structures in which we live. Where poems depict less sexually-charged relationships, for example with the trombonist in ‘1’ – “we lay twice a week in each other’s beds / like two unlit candles” – the question arises as to whether the association can persist at all if it is not sexualised in the way that a largely patriarchal society with its systemic sexism – invisible, pervasive – often assumes it will be.
This book is for everyone. The poems are so good – probing, empathetic, readable, beautifully crafted
Some of the narratives in the poems edge into myth or fairy tale (‘2’ – “Many years ago I lived in a house in the woods”) or perhaps folk tale (‘33’ – “I knew him when the summer was heavy with bees / and all the flying things were thrumming in the heat”). There are forests and journeys, and tales of implicit danger, like the trapped feeling in ‘13’ – the taxi driver’s verbal aggression, his awareness of the fear he provokes in his female passenger:
and he’s laughing, saying relax, just relax, and I know
that he knows I’m afraid, that I’ve been afraid all my life
Other poems show daring dissection, even vivisection, of relationships, to the point that the collection displays all the degrees of threat, from threat that seems minor or ordinary (that word again) to violent realities of the most heinous kind. All the time, the poems tremble with an edgy awareness of danger and of the potential for escalation of that danger, coupled with a knowledge that well, yes, this is how the world is.
The sheer range of different associations and communications portrayed between male and female gives the collection enormous authority and depth. Take ‘44’ for instance – a moving tale of an unknown man who falls in the street, whom the speaker looks after with care and compassion while waiting for an ambulance, aware of all her own mixed feelings, including the strange sense “that this was a punishment I’d somehow earned”.
This book is for everyone. The poems are so good – probing, empathetic, readable, beautifully crafted. Bring on the discomfort: it is where we must meet and dwell – the place where change can be nurtured and, let us hope, finally realised.
Clare Best is the author of a prose memoir The Missing List (Linen Press, 2018) and seven volumes of poetry, the most recent of which is a new pamphlet, End of Season, published with Coast to Coast to Coast in 2021. Clare has often worked with visual artists and last year held a Fellowship at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where she collaborated on operas and other vocal projects. She lives on the edge of Tunstall Forest, near the Suffolk coast. Clare Best’s website is here.