Walt Whitman learned from his learn’d astronomer that “charts and diagrams” or “proofs” and “figures” are no substitute for walking out into the “mystical moist night air” and looking up at the heavens. He doesn’t name the moon in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” but when he looks up in “perfect silence at the stars,” I’m sure the moon also came into view. Whitman’s recognition of our human need to look beyond our own small sphere, to transcend, if only in our imaginations, our limited earth-bound existence, is shared by the poets whose poems appear in Philip C. Kolin and Sue Brannan Walker’s anthology The Night’s Magician: Poems about the Moon.
These 80 new poems, many by nationally prominent poets, capture the moon in all her phases and express what she means to us in every stage of our lives. We might be tempted to think, along with Sydney Lea in “October Moon on the Lake,” that everything has already been written about the moon, that “there’s nothing more to mean, / to see or say,” but this wonderful collection of both traditional, formalist poems and poems that experiment with form and language will remind us that the role of literature is to make the familiar strange and new again. This collection, anchored in a strong sense of the lunar environment and how that environment affects Earth, maps for us the landscapes of the moon as she intersects with the landscapes of music, literature, scripture, geography, and history—our own personal histories and our nation’s history.
Several of the poets take us back to memories of childhood and those moments when we first gazed up at the moon with a sense of wonderment. Pat Schneider’s poem “The Moon Ten Times” reawakens the delighted child in us, imagining the moon as a “Bright Frisbee / the dog star lost / in the Night.” Ned Balbo remembers his mother “singing the tune Moonglow”; and the sight of the moon on a camping trip with his grandson reminds Philip L. Levin, in the poem “The Big Orange Ball,” of an evening spent moongazing with his own parents, how the huge harvest moon cast “eerie ghost shadows on the ground / And awe in a young boy’s heart.” Maria Mazziotti Gillan remembers in “Contemplating the Moon in My Seventy-Seventh Year” how as a girl she “made up stories about its cratered surface, the faces I imagined lived in it.” In “Moon Watching” the “ring of light” during a lunar eclipse reminds Lou Ella Hickman of the thinness of her “grandmother’s wedding band” that she wears now as a nun. These poems help us recall summer nights spent under the stars chasing fireflies and looking up, our mouths mimicking the “Round, open mouth / of the goddess / of light” (Schneider).
The poems here also remind us that the moon is a symbolic reflection of our inner landscapes: our hopes and dreams, our contradictions, and the parts of ourselves we would like best to keep hidden in the darkness. The lunar landscape reminds Michael Bassett in “Returning and Returning” that “We are a legacy of landings and striving. / We are craters of possibility.” Bassett urges us to see in the moon’s cycles a metaphor for hope, to believe that we can “Rewrite The Bill of Dreams” and “Return to earnest messy complicated but unsophisticated / love of the world.” Reflected in Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner’s “Real Presence, Moon” are the contradictions we find both in the moon and in our own lives, how changeable we are, just as the moon can be both “massive at the horizon” but then “a silver sliver,” both a soft “white rabbit” and then a “monstrance blank wafer.” In Hickman’s poem the force of the moon’s tides cast a net: “pulling oceans / pulling our bodies’ hidden seas / dredging up our deepest fears.” Hickman’s sparse language evokes an ancient time, pulls us to that dark shore of primal longings, makes us dread what lies just beneath the surface.
Another type of awakening awaits the reader in several of the poems Kolin and Walker have selected for this anthology. These poets remind us how the ever-present moon has witnessed our nation’s darkest deeds. In “Brown Bodies Swaying,” Angela Jackson-Brown tells how the lynched “cast strange moon shadows / as they hang like broken down dolls on / hilltops much like Golgotha.” In “A Waning Crescent,” Joseph Ross chastises the “barest of slivers” of a moon for its complicit silence on September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama when six children died in the racial violence that embroiled the U.S. South: “You were a silent wound / In the stabbed sky. / You said nothing.” The pain of that silence lingers in our nation today, reminds us that until we speak what has been unspoken for so long, our wounds will never heal.
Not all the poets see the moon as a silent sentinel; instead she speaks to us, acknowledging our existence, as she does in Ralph Adamo’s “There You Are”: “Oh. / There you are / Said the clowning moon. Said the somber / Stone. Said the brightness so softly / Enfolding the time of my life on earth.” The language of the moon has limited power for Gillan, who sees that “the landscape of old age is like the surface / of the moon. It has so many places to fall.” When the moon speaks to Gillan, she recognizes that “the words I hear / cannot save me; it is your beauty, / as you skim across the night sky, / that lifts me up.” It is that lifting up, that invitation to contemplation that inspires the poets in this anthology to add their contributions on this universal subject. Our days are filled with busyness, with work and family obligations, but the night is our own time. During the day, we turn away, shield our eyes from “the relentless sun, blazing on” (Twyla M. Hansen), but at night, the moon, the lesser light of Genesis 1:16, invites us to gaze upon her.
We can spend hours looking at her, this gentle, soft presence in our lives. She welcomes our adoration, our questions, our “perfect silence” (Whitman), even our criticisms, our accusations of silent witness to past grief. When you glide out into Whitman’s “mystical, moist night air,” take this book of poems with you. It will make a perfect companion as you look up, and with Linda Pastan, see the moon as “a keyhole in the sky,” and looking through, you will see “whole galaxies” to explore.
Alice Berecka lives on the Gulf Coast, close to Corpus Christi, Texas. She earned her MA in English in 1980 from the University of North Texas and and taught English for 38 years at various high schools and community colleges in Texas. Recently retired, she is working on her first collection of poetry.