Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Poem366: 921B ELYSIAN FIELDS AVENUE by Catherine Moore

Epistolary. Mythic. Raw. Possibly even confessional, but who could know? Catherine Moore’s chapbook, 921b Elysian Fields Avenue (RETURN TO SENDER) (KY Story, 2015), presents many faces in poems filled with all of the lush detail its New Orleans setting demands.

The book is made up of epistolary prose poems, all but one a letter to a woman named Daphne. The letters come from three men—Apollo, Paul, and Vern—yet the poet makes it clear that these are all the same person, expressing himself in here distinct heteronyms.

Moore was a student in New Orleans in the late 1980s, and that is the setting for the group of letters, all written in 1987 and 1988. That she knows the city, and particularly the French Quarter, is reflected in the details in these poems, which seem packed with souvenirs of memorable moments between Daphne and the man with three names.

Classically, Daphne represents a desire for chastity and Apollo represents overwhelming lust. It is possible that they function similarly in this collection, and that leads a reader to wonder who Paul and Vern are. The poet’s end note reveals that she heard a lecture about Fernando Pessoa, who used heteronyms in his love letters, and this is what sparked her project. It isn’t necessarily clear at the outset of the project that these three letter-writers are the same, but this is revealed in the anguished letter from Paul dated Feb. 18, 1988 (and the dates are the only titles for the poems):

There is a flood in me that cannot be contained. A river of thought, a current to the dendrites in my brain, even and true until it diverts. I am drown. I am dispirit. One lost self, inhabiting a self I cannot always find.

You don’t need to understand. It is overwhelming. Especially as I watch the tides drift between us. I need to stop because I’m lost, and I’ve reached the end of this sheet, and this doesn’t seem like it could be written by the hand of any other self, Vern, Apollo, but it was composed by me.

Always, Paul

And the letters are “Always, Paul,” it would seem, although Vern and Apollo offer different looks at the spurned Paul. Apollo does seem to represent lust, but a lust that feels like off-the-rails love. Vern, on the other hand, seems darker and more self-absorbed. (Whatever else Apollo’s and anyone’s lust is, it is not self-absorbed, but fully absorbed in its object, albeit for personal gratification.) Here is a section of Vern’s letter of “2/14,” notable for its internal rhyme and its rhythm, a type somewhat rare in a prose poem:

I am seeking clarity but I am not thinking about you. I mean, after the last date snafu I’ve decided to let this situation be. Although I am writing to you, I wonder most about those girls at Sigma Nu—wanton, wild, like refugees. But I am not thinking about you. You in the tease, the taunt, the eschew. I the one who ends up as fallout debris. I’m through!

In the course of this very small letter poem, Vern informs Daphne, whom he addresses as “Babe,” that he is not thinking about her … four times. It’s unsettling to see a character so out of touch with himself, and that kind of tension makes the chapbook very hard to put down.

The book reveals that all of the letters are returned to Paul/Vern/Apollo unread, along with other artifacts of the relationship. The reader is reminded of that original Daphne, who wanted so desperately to be away from Apollo that she was willing to take root and reach her arms as branches into the sky.

Moore’s project is a compelling read, and the fact that it does not attempt to answer all questions the reader might have means that it sticks with one for a long time after putting it down.

An interview with Catherine Moore …

What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?

About age ten, I had the good fortune to meet William Gibson, a famous playwright (and published poet), and I attended poetry workshops with him. He was one of few in my life who wanted to read and talk poetry with me. I loved theater and poetry, so I wanted to be him when I grew up. I really had no idea this guy was a big deal with an Academy nomination and a Tony Award sitting on his shelf back home.

How would you describe this collection?

Epistolary suspense poetry. The chapbook is a series of letter poems that is a weird romance, in a love triangle, sort of.

Describe your worst poetic habit.

Working line breaks to death. First here, then there, but maybe back to here. Some days like a high school poem-fastinista. But no worries, 921b Elysian Fields Avenue (RETURN TO SENDER) is written in prose poem format so readers will not become dizzy on this journey.

It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about …

Domestic fabulism in women's poetry! Because domestic fabulist poems are both magical and real, and I just helped launch an open-call because a publisher wants to read this manuscript: Send us something amazing.

It’s your poetic obituary! Describe your poetic life.

Catherine Moore was a poet who in childhood wrote, directed, and produced her own puppet shows. In some ways, little changed in life.

Catherine Moore is the author of Story (Finishing Line Press), 921b Elysian Fields Avenue (RETURN TO SENDER) (KYStory, 2015), and Wetlands (dancing girl press, 2016). Her writing appears in Tahoma Literary Review, Cider Press Review, Bluefifth ReviewCaesura and in various anthologies. She won the Southeast Review’s 2014 Gearhart Poetry Prize and had work included in The Best Small Fictions of 2015. She lives in the Nashville area, where she enjoys a thriving writer’s community and was awarded a MetroArts grant. Catherine earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Tampa.


  1. My only regret when I read this chapbook is that is wasn't longer.. I wanted the mystery prolonged. Overall, this is a great piece!!!