Black Earth – Marianne Moore

Poet Marianne Moore once said, ‘Poetry watches life with affection,’ a sentiment echoed in her poem Black Earth, which featured in a 1924 collection called Observations. In the poem, Moore imagines herself – affectionately – as an elephant, with thick skin ‘cut into checkers by rut upon rut of unpreventable experience’ that conceals the ‘beautiful element of unreason.’ ‘I do these things which I do,’ she writes, ‘which please no one but myself.’ TS Elliot said of Moore that she ‘expanded language’ with her work, while Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova called her the Oliver Sacks of poetry.  


Black Earth

Openly, yes,
          With the naturalness
          Of the hippopotamus or the alligator
When it climbs out on the bank to experience the

Sun, I do these
Things which I do, which please
          No one but myself.  Now I breathe and now I am sub-
          Merged; the blemishes stand up and shout when the object

In view was a
Renaissance; shall I say
          The contrary?  The sediment of the river which
          Encrusts my joints, makes me very gray but I am used

To it, it may
Remain there; do away
          With it and I am myself done away with, for the
          Patina of circumstance can but enrich what was

There to begin
With.  This elephant skin
          Which I inhabit, fibered over like the shell of
          The coco-nut, this piece of black glass through which no light

Can filter—cut
Into checkers by rut
          Upon rut of unpreventable experience—
          It is a manual for the peanut-tongued and the

Hairy toed.  Black
But beautiful, my back
          Is full of the history of power.  Of power? What
          Is powerful and what is not?  My soul shall never

Be cut into
By a wooden spear; through-
          Out childhood to the present time, the unity of
          Life and death has been expressed by the circumference

Described by my
Trunk; nevertheless, I
           Perceive feats of strength to be inexplicable after
           All; and I am on my guard; external poise, it

Has its centre
Well nurtured—we know
          Where—in pride, but spiritual poise, it has its centre where ?
          My ears are sensitized to more than the sound of

The wind.  I see
And I hear, unlike the
          Wandlike body of which one hears so much, which was made
          To see and not to see; to hear and not to hear,

That tree trunk without
Roots, accustomed to shout
           Its own thoughts to itself like a shell, maintained intact
          By who knows what strange pressure of the  atmosphere; that

Brother to the coral
          Plant, absorbed into which, the equable sapphire light
          Becomes a nebulous green.  The I of each is to

The I of each,
A kind of fretful speech
          Which sets a limit on itself; the elephant is?
          Black earth preceded by a tendril?  It is to that

The above formation,
          Translucent like the atmosphere—a cortex merely—
          That on which darts cannot strike decisively the first

Time, a substance
Needful as an instance
          Of the indestructibility of matter; it
          Has looked at the electricity and at the earth-

Quake and is still
Here; the name means thick.  Will
          Depth be depth, thick skin be thick, to one who can see no
          Beautiful element of unreason under it?

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)
From: Observations


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