Questions of Fire by Gregg Mosson
Plain View Press © 2009. 85 pgs.
Reviewed by Mike Maggio
Questions of Fire: A Question of Formality
Ever since the US invasion of Iraq, the proliferation of anti-war poetry, by both known and unknown poets, has crammed the pages of books and web sites in almost every corner of our culture. Even prior to this duplicitous chapter in our history, when it was clear that war was merely the purpose, poets responded powerfully and clearly, taking part in a renascent anti-war movement that was to become a major voice against the war as well as subsequent attacks on individual and civil liberties.
From the now famous Poets Against War web forum www.poetsagainstthewar.org, created by Sam Hamill after spurning an invitation by Laura Bush to read at the White House at the very time her husband was busy planning a war of aggression, to local pop-up organizations such as DC Poets Against the War www.dcpoetsagainstwar.org, to poems published in print journals and anthologies across the country (indeed, across the world), poets responded en masse to the Bush Administration’s misguided policies born out of a knee-jerk reaction to terrorism that went rabidly awry.
Gregg Mosson’s Questions of Fire, while not primarily an anti-war collection, is nonetheless rooted in this movement, and those poems which do not primarily deal with the war on Iraq raise questions which are relevant to our time, questions of what it means to be alive in this brave new world of indiscriminate terror, televised war, climate chaos and co-opted democracies.
“Urban Renewal,” for example, with its seemingly innocuous title, hints at the clash of corporate culture against local community:
Broken gutter glass
snags sun, grows infused like grass,
glints with criss-crossed dreams. (p.28)
In this short haiku, Mosson succinctly captures the essence of urban decay while hinting at the blight of gentrification, illuminating the conflict between these two inherently debilitating forces. And an analysis of the poem will reveal something of the author’s approach to prosody: his use of dense, almost cumbersome, language, which causes you to pause and reflect, as well as a somewhat less than subtle hint of assonance and rhyme.
Mosson, however, is no formalist, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. Yet much of his poetry relies heavily on formal structure. Indeed, one might call him an informal formalist, for despite his extensive use of rhyme, a hint of formal meter throughout his verse and his stanzaic approach to many of these poems, he will often abandon these formalities, sometimes within the very same piece.
Take “Against Guantanamo” (p.73,) for instance. The poem is written in sonnet form. Yet the rhyme scheme he utilizes in the first stanza (aa, bb, cc, dd, this last one employing a half-rhyme) does not conform to the traditional sonnet rhyme schema. Nor does the meter conform to iambic pentameter. The second stanza, moreover, abandons rhyme altogether.
Similarly, “While You’re Shopping, Bombs Are Dropping” (p.16) takes a rather haphazard approach to rhyme: the first quatrain contains no rhyme at all, the last one includes just one, the middle tercet has none while the two remaining couplets rhyme nearly perfectly. There is, of course, also the internal rhyme contained within the title.
The question, then, remains as to whether all of this is intentional. Certainly, Mosson, who studied at Johns Hopkins, has a grasp of English prosody. One would therefore expect him to know the rules. And certainly, one cannot expect a skilled poet to approach form blindly or haphazardly: form must serve a purpose just as taking form and reshaping it must serve a purpose. Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, is known to have taken the sonnet form and renewed it. Her purpose: to take this classic form and bring it into a Twentieth Century vernacular.
So what purpose did Mosson perhaps have in mind? Given the subject matter – the dissonance of modern living, the broken world in which we live and which Mosson depicts in each and every poem, the disjointed discourse perpetuated daily by the media where black and white are literally reversed while seemingly maintaining their original patina – Mosson’s play of formal against informal echoes the very substance of these poems. His work is in fact an illustration of form – in this case, broken form -- informing content. It will be left to the reader to decide just how successful this experiment has been.
Mike Maggio's publications include fiction, poetry, travel and reviews in Potomac Review, Pleiades, Apalachee Quarterly, The L.A. Weekly, The Washington CityPaper, Gypsy, Pig Iron, DC Poets Against the War and others. His full length publications include Your Secret is SafeWithMe (Black Bear Publications, 1988), Oranges From Palestine (Mardi Gras Press, 1996), Sifting Through the Madness (Xlibris, 2001) and, deMOCKcracy (Plain View Press, 2007).