Book Review: Holding On Upside Down
by Linda Leavell
Bonnie Costello’s unassumingly magnificent 1997 collection of the letters of Marianne Moore gave most of its readers a startlingly new and fascinating look at a literary figure they’d perhaps previously only known in the caricature of the willfully anachronistic white-haired spinster-poet in her signature black cape and black tri-corner hat, turning up in TV commercials and on The Tonight Show looking impeccable and slightly dazed, like an elegant Persian cat doing her best to walk on ice. The letters subverted the image without dismantling it; they revealed a passionate but shrewd and incredibly insightful reader of the contemporary scene, a working editor and an artist striving always to challenge herself.
Nobody reading those great letters could finish that volume without yearning for an authoritative, full-dress biography of Moore, and now at last we have it: after decades of work, Linda Leavell has produced Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore, which will surely stand as the definitive biography of this woman who, she rightly states, “stands with Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, her famous protegee, as one of America’s greatest women poets” (and, she notes, one of the great modernists alongside Eliot, Pound, and Stevens).
Leavell had access to a greater trove of material than any other writer about Moore, but as she confesses early on in her book, this was never going to be a simple matter of archival access: “I knew when I began the project that my greatest challenge as Moore’s biographer was not accumulating the facts – though that would take time,” she writes, ” – so much as gleaning from the abundance of facts a compelling story.” Moore wrote voluminously to her brother Warner, and she lived for most of her life with her mother Mary (William Carlos Williams was hardly the only one of her colleagues and friends to be a bit mystified by “the mother thing”), but for long decades, as Leavell points out with good-natured exasperation, she seems to fade into the background of her own life story. This can make the first two-thirds of Hanging on Upside Down a bit surreal at times, since the reader is forced right alongside the publishing greats of the early 20th century to deal with “the mother thing.” It’s only toward the book’s absorbing climax that a) Mary Moore dies, b) Marianne’s collected poems begin to establish her as a living literary giant, and c) she seemed to shed large chunks of her earlier reserve and embrace public celebrity.
At all the stages of her life, Leavell is there to ground the ethereal shorthand image of the poet in the day-to-day realities of life – and of life with mother. Some of the incidents will be familiar in raw outline to readers of the collected letters, but Leavell fleshes everything out with well-chosen details and a great eye for rounding out an anecdote:
Ezra Pound came to New York that spring [of 1939, when Marianne’s mother was laid up with shingles] for the first time in twenty-eight years. He wanted to meet her. Marianne sent him her address and phone number but said that she was not using the telephone or accepting visitors. “My mother has been ill since December and is still so ill, I don’t know why it is not the dissolution of my mind and heart,” she told him. He nevertheless telephoned to invite himself to supper – eggs or cold cuts, he suggested. Marianne agreed to meet him at a restaurant. He asked what she read for “mental food” and was dismayed by her apparent lack of interest in the topic … After dinner, she allowed him to accompany her to the apartment. He stayed fifteen minutes – far too long, she thought, considering her mother’s discomfort – and then she walked him to the subway. “Yes. Ezra Pound is a great scalawag,” Warner concluded from reading Marianne’s account of the visit.
With the neat counter-weighting concluding detail I quickly came to expect from Leavell: “Their conversation could not have been all solemnity, however, for throughout the next decade their letters to each other grew ever more playful and affectionate.”
Spending decades immersed in Marianne Moore’s letters and archives – anybody’s letters and archives – will either make you love or hate her, and Leavell clearly came to love her subject even more during her researches than she’d loved her before. There’s a smile-inducing protectiveness on her part at times, cropping up especially toward the end of Moore’s life when she became steadily more willfully eccentric. To her credit, Leavell hides none of these odd little quirks, however great the risk of them seeming petty:
… and while Marianne had several hundred thousand dollars from prizes, gifts, and investments by the time she moved to West Ninth Street [in 1965], she feared that she could not afford the increase in monthly rent from $69 to $350. She sometimes alarmed her impecunious friends by letting them believe she lived hand to mouth on the checks she received from magazines, and she sometimes accepted checks of $10 to $15 from such friends. Marianne was “a child about money,” according to Ethel Taylor, her nurse. She sometimes snuck off to the bank by herself and then stood on the street corner to count the cash she withdrew.
Holding on Upside Down also does the requisite yeoman work at reading the actual poems that are the source of Marianne Moore’s renown, and it’s only here that the book stumbles, although that can hardly be reckoned a unique shortcoming. What critic yet has forced the weird, precise, protean beauties of Moore’s verses to yield anything but temporary secrets? Even the great Randall Jarrell, confronted with the stunning, almost brutal fact of her genius, came as close as he could to admitting simple, uncharacteristic awe: “Miss Moore,” he wrote, “leaves the stones she picks up carefully uncut, but places them in an unimaginably complicated and difficult setting, to sparkle under the Northern Lights of her continual irony.”
But for everything else – for the woman who was the genius – Leavell’s splendid book answers all needs. And if it prompts its readers to go and grapple with the poems themselves, I’m sure nobody would be happier than she.