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Essay

Luke Hathaway on Anne Corkett’s "Moses Wisdom"

(How Poems Work, October 2005)
If Outram’s “Story” draws its stylistic authority from the diction of religion and mathematics, Corkett’s “Moses Wisdom” draws its stylistic authority from the diction of the nursery–a no less formidable source. Nursery rhymes are, for many of us, the initiation into figurative language, into rhyme and metre, ordered speech: in short, into poetry. When we recognize the diction of “Moses Wisdom,” then, it is with a very old part of our memory; buried that deep, education is transmuted into instinct….

If Outram’s “Story” draws its stylistic authority from the diction of religion and mathematics, Corkett’s “Moses Wisdom” draws its stylistic authority from the diction of the nursery–a no less formidable source. Nursery rhymes are, for many of us, the initiation into figurative language, into rhyme and metre, ordered speech: in short, into poetry. When we recognize the diction of “Moses Wisdom,” then, it is with a very old part of our memory; buried that deep, education is transmuted into instinct.


If Outram’s “Story” draws its stylistic authority from the diction of religion and mathematics, Corkett’s “Moses Wisdom” draws its stylistic authority from the diction of the nursery–a no less formidable source. Nursery rhymes are, for many of us, the initiation into figurative language, into rhyme and metre, ordered speech: in short, into poetry. When we recognize the diction of “Moses Wisdom,” then, it is with a very old part of our memory; buried that deep, education is transmuted into instinct.

Metrically, Corkett’s Moses resonates on a number of levels: not only with “Mistress Mary quite contrary” but with “Tyger Tyger burning bright.” His closest Mother-Goosian antecedent may be Solomon Grundy, however: “Born on a Monday, / Christened on Tuesday, / Married on Wednesday, / Took ill on Thursday, / Worse on Friday, / Died on Saturday, / Buried on Sunday….” The nursery rhyme is the genre of dark things phrased lightly. Protagonists lose their pockets and break their crowns. Even when such overt tragedies are absent, there is almost always a sense of something not altogether pleasant, lurking just outside the compass of the rhyme. This sense agrees with children, who develop–fairly early on, I think–the notion of many things not altogether pleasant, lurking just outside the circle of the nursery.

“Moses Wisdom” centres on a pun: to the ear, Moses Wisdom and Moses’ Wisdom are the same. In the first guise, our hero is a nursery-rhyme blunderer after the mould (all puns intended) of Solomon Grundy; in the second, he is the biblical Moses, who, in his wisdom, leads the children of Israel out of Egypt, wanders with them through the wilderness for forty years, prescribes to them a volume’s worth of laws, and leaves them on the threshold of the promised land. He does not enter the promised land, however; thus Moses’ kingdom remains a kingdom not of geography but of language: of law (“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy”), and of song (“Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel…”). Paradoxically, linguistic kingdoms have shown themselves more durable than their geographic counterparts. Northrop Frye reminds us of a scene in the Book of Jeremiah in which the king of Judah, irked by Jeremiah’s prophesy, feeds pieces of the papyrus scroll on which it is written to the fire that warms his palatial rooms. “After 2500 years,” Frye writes, “not the slightest trace remains of the king’s palace, whereas the book of Jeremiah remains in reasonably good shape.”

In _Deuteronomy_ we read “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.” There is an ambiguity here. Who exactly buries the biblical Moses? Moses himself? The Lord? In “Moses Wisdom” there is a corresponding ambiguity. What exactly is entombed with the Moses of the poem? The man? The kingdom? The wisdom? Only Moses Wisdom knows. Which agrees with our other, rather more adult, sense, that there are some things which will always remain outside the circle of our understanding.

One thing that has not been entombed with Moses is the song–and Corkett’s poem is itself a song, intent on being remembered.