Pedro Almodovar's new film, All About My Mother, has arrived: after a British premiere last weekend at the Edinburgh Film Festival, it receives its full UK release today. And it is preceded by a squall of controversy. There were many who thought it should have won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year; it was a favourite of critics and cinemagoers alike - the "choice of the Croisette". So when this accomplished and distinctive movie was awarded no substantial prize by the judges, there was anger and astonishment. But not from me. I was agnostic about All About My Mother when I saw it in Cannes, and I still am. But there is no doubting the extraordinary effect it has on audiences. When I caught up with it again here, people were leaving the screening with faces irradiated with bliss. They were hardly able to speak for emotion. And I predict that it will continue to have this phenomenal effect.
The rest of us, the immune, are left with the uncomfortable feeling that this was two films melded into one. The first is an intelligent and affecting movie about women's experience of love, companionship and loss - and the second is a bizarre, shrill, freakish high-camp operetta whose apparent claim to an ultimate moral and emotional seriousness is ill-founded.
All About My Mother is about Manuela (Cecilia Roth), an administrator who works in the transplant unit of a Madrid hospital. Her talents for acting are given expression in the role-playing videos set up by the hospital for its junior doctors, who have to learn how tactfully to ask bereaved relatives for permission to remove their loved ones' organs; Manuela plays the grieving mother or wife or daughter.
She lives with her son, Esteban, whose 18th birthday treat is to be taken to a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring a famous actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). But running to get her autograph, Esteban is knocked over and killed - and, with scalding irony, Manuela has to have the transplant conversation with the consultants for real. Agonised, she decides to travel to Barcelona to confront Esteban's father - the father whose life she kept secret from her late son.
And at this point Almodovar apparently considers he has kept the lid on his trademark flourishes long enough. Because Esteban's father turns out to be a fugitive transsexual prostitute called Lola, and Manuela has to track to him down by making contact with another transsexual, a witty and amiable friend called Agrado, and an improbably beautiful young nun, Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz). Who Lola turns out to have impregnated. And whose mother makes a living forging Chagalls. This weird ménage focuses once again on Huma Roja, whose touring production of Streetcar has reached Barcelona - and more tragedy is on the way. Even now, I am at a loss as to how exactly to locate Cecilia Roth's magnificent and moving performance, and the powerful themes it invokes, within the bizarre incidentals of this film. The title is an allusion to Bette Davis's performance in Joseph Mankiewicz's film All About Eve, and from another director this might be the occasion for an exploration of a gay sensibility and a popular gay aesthetic. Not here. Neither gay nor heterosexual love is especially dramatised in All About My Mother; the motif is rather the eternal power of female companionship and sisterhood. But it is difficult to see how the central, exuberant presence of transsexuals does any more than ironise and alienate the real emotional issues raised in this film, and it leaves open the question of how precisely the experience of transsexuals is supposed to speak to the lives of non-transsexual women and men.
If we are invited to draw a parallel between the discrimination and hardship suffered by transsexuals, and those suffered by women generally, then this is surely an unequal pairing. Could it be that Almodovar is offering the transsexuals in a metaphoric sense - as a dramatisation of women's yearning to escape stereotypical sexual identities? Or of a longing to communicate directly with men, free of socio-sexual tension? If so, these are elusive and insufficiently realised cinematic gestures. Almodovar certainly has elicited wonderful performances, though, chiefly from Cecilia Roth - who really does deserve an Academy Award - and also Marisa Paredes and Antonia San Juan. But they somehow belong to a more grown-up movie than this one.
In the late nineteen-fifties, when she was in her seventies, Marianne Moore became a star. She went on the “Tonight Show” to talk about the Brooklyn Dodgers with Jack Paar. The elderly poet was profiled in Sports Illustrated and featured on the cover of Esquire, with Jimmy Durante, Joe Louis, and others. George Plimpton picked her up in a limousine at her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and escorted her to a game at Yankee Stadium. Plimpton also introduced her to Norman Mailer, whom she adored, and to Muhammad Ali, at that time Cassius Clay. It is hard to imagine any other high modernist—Ezra Pound, say, or Wallace Stevens—writing the liner notes for Ali’s spoken-word record, “I Am the Greatest,” as Moore did. Only occasionally did the attention become too much. “I am being obliterated by trespassers,” she said of the strangers who appeared at her door after Time published directions to her home.
Moore had a talent for surprising herself; she was as gratified as anyone by the unforeseen swerves of her mind. She never could focus on what she called “the important fact” (the score of the game, for example), losing its “fringe” in peripheral matter (her novelistic sense of the players’ “insouciance” and “sangfroid”). Her perceptions startled people: overhearing her describe a wet musk ox, Plimpton’s chauffeur called her the best passenger he’d ever had in his car. Her poems, which only some of her new admirers had read, provide lessons in the proper uses of perception, in how best to distribute our curiosity. She acted as though everyone had the wrong ideas about things that, in fact, they’d never thought about: jerboas, or pangolins, or plumet basilisks. By mixing instruction and description, Moore corrected those imagined biases. Her perspicacity, and her strong convictions—a forcefulness distilled from her latent Presbyterianism—made her a valuable commodity, literally so: Ford famously hired her to name its much anticipated new model for the year 1958. The episode has struck some as pitiful—a great poet pandering to the crassest patron—but her submissions are unforgettable: Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtletop, Pastelogram. Ford said no thanks, and went with Edsel.
Nobody could have foreseen Moore’s eleventh-hour sojourn in the world of celebrity. Her poems were praised early by T. S. Eliot, who said they belonged to the “small body of durable poetry” of the time. The work eluded “the moderately intellectual,” as Eliot put it, in his introduction to Moore’s 1935 “Selected Poems”: “Only to those whose intellection moves more easily will they immediately appear to have emotional value.” The moderately intellectual had their say: Mark Van Doren, the Columbia professor, condemned her as merely witty, a poet for the “highbrows.” But Eliot and others—William Carlos Williams, H.D., Stevens, Pound—suspected that she was among the finest poets of their generation, the practitioner of a purer modernism than even they had dared. The best of the small body of work she produced before her late stardom—two dozen poems, perhaps—is, for many, still unrivalled in American literature. John Ashbery is not alone in being “tempted to call her our greatest Modern poet.”
The poems were hard, and harder still because they were not “difficult”—fragmented, allusive—in the prescribed modernist way. Pound said that they were the “mind cry” of “clever people in despair.” The sound of typewriter keys (Moore was among the first important poets to write exclusively on the typewriter) is almost audible in her lines, which proceed, one syllable at a time, with what she called a “pleasing jerky progress.” Their immediate “emotional value” (a surprising thing for Eliot, the champion of impersonality, to praise) is usually hidden on the surface, as in the opening of “The Fish,” one of her best-known poems (its title, as often in Moore, runs into the first line):
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
These unlikely applications of empathy—to a mussel shell, a fan, a fish condemned to wading through stone—all enter through the unmarked portal of “description”; only later do we realize that what has been described is not what Moore saw but what Moore felt on seeing what she saw. The clandestine emotionality is a form of defense. She believed that “to understand/One is not to find one formidable.” She wrote about the kinds of adaptation her poems exemplified: concealment, armor, camouflage, indirection, tentativeness, and flight. “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence,” she wrote, in “Silence”: an odd assertion for a poet to make, but also a strong enticement to any reader to play, with Moore, her exquisite game of emotional hide-and-seek.
Linda Leavell’s fine new biography, “Holding On Upside Down” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is the first life of Moore to be done with the blessing of Moore’s executors, who supplied, among other forms of support, a “cache of letters” about her father. “We prove, we do not explain, our birth,” Moore wrote, in “The Monkey Puzzle.” There was much in her life that was inexplicable. Moore was born in 1887, in St. Louis, ten months before Eliot was born in that same city; both of their grandfathers were ministers, and they may have had a kind of crosstown rivalry. Moore’s father, after going into business with his younger brother to manufacture a smokeless furnace, lost his nerve, went mad, and was committed to an asylum before Moore was out of infancy. Moore never met him and rarely spoke of him. She learned later, from relatives, that in a fever of religious delusion he cut off his right hand. Moore’s mother, Mary Warner Moore, moved Moore and her brother, John Warner (known to the family as Warner), in with the Reverend Moore, who had been widowed young and had never fully recovered. This arrangement—a grown daughter setting up house with her widowed father—prefigured Moore’s own bizarre bargain with Mary, who shared a bed with Marianne from 1918 until her death, in 1947, when Moore was sixty.
Leavell is the first of Moore’s biographers to characterize her mother unequivocally as a lesbian. After the Reverend Moore’s death, Mary moved Marianne and Warner to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where they befriended the family of a local pastor, George Norcross. Mary and the third Norcross daughter, also named Mary, soon fell in love; Mary Moore was thirty-eight, Mary Norcross twenty-five, when the two began an affair that lasted nearly ten years. You could argue that, from the age of thirteen on, Moore was the first American writer of her calibre to be reared by a homosexual couple. It was Norcross, a noted suffragist, who encouraged Moore to attend Bryn Mawr, and Norcross who weaved cushions for the children’s dorm rooms. Marianne wrote to Norcross from Bryn Mawr often, sometimes twice a day. Norcross and Mary Moore shuttled between two houses, the Manse (George Norcross’s house) and the Nest (the Moores’ smaller house, across town). This new family—the two Marys, Warner, and Marianne—vacationed on Monhegan Island, in Maine; Mary Norcross hoped to move there with Mary Moore after the children finished college, but instead the two together helped build Norcross’s craftsman-type house in the Pennsylvania mountains. The letters between them have mostly been destroyed, but the few that remain suggest great passion, with Norcross looking forward to “night after night” of “having” each other, “greedy” in anticipation, “starved” for Mary Moore’s “precious self.”
Marianne Moore’s own sexuality was a mystery to everyone her entire life, and Leavell makes few guesses about the inside story. Her crushes at Bryn Mawr, including one on William James’s daughter, Peggy, seem more collegiate fad than ardor. In her adult life, Moore resembled the “impassioned Handel” she describes in “The Frigate Pelican,” who “never was known to have fallen in love.” It was not a question of being in the closet; it was more like a campaign to hide the fact that she even had sexual desires—any, for anyone—from her mother. Among her many oblique self-portraits is the “blameless bachelor” or “Rosalindless redbird” who
comes where people are, knowing they
have not made a point of
being where he is—this bird
which says not sings, “without
loneliness I should be more
lonely, so I keep it”—half in
By becoming a man, she could, by some half-buried logic, opt out of interest in men or their interest in her. From earliest childhood, she referred to herself as Warner’s brother, and was usually called “he” in the letters Mary wrote to Warner.
Moore was fantastically attractive to members of both sexes, but she sent them all away baffled. Both H.D. and Bryher, her lover, found her beguiling: Bryher compared her appearance to that of a heraldic pterodactyl. William Carlos Williams, always an admirer, wrote of her after a reading, saying that she was “BEAUTIFUL! . . . with her greying red hair all coiled about her brows.” But for Marianne to have fallen in love would have destroyed her mother, as Mary Moore made clear. After Mary Norcross left her mother, in 1910, Marianne moved home and rarely spent a night away from her mother until Mary’s death. The two of them moved together, first to Chatham, New Jersey, to be with Warner, then to St. Luke’s Place, in the Village, and later to Cumberland Street in Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard, where Warner had been stationed, sharing a bed in tiny, lifeless apartments that seemed chosen, by Mary, to keep Marianne as physically close and dependent as possible.
To examine childhood with impunity is essential for many writers, even if they are not, on the face of it, especially autobiographical. Poets often make a sudden advance with the death of their parents, as though a curfew had suddenly been lifted; for some (Robert Lowell, say), it happens just at the moment the imagination has stalled. Moore wrote hardly a word before her sixtieth year without her mother by her side or in the next room, often acting as her editor. There was no way to feel that one was making a breakthrough, burrowing down to the real truth of the past. What made matters worse was the fact that Mary had strict, and often flawed, judgments about Moore’s poetry: she thought “An Octopus,” perhaps Moore’s best poem, to be a “vay bad poem,” and protested when her daughter, immersed in the writing of another masterpiece, “The Jerboa,” started repeating the phrase “cookie dust” and smiling strangely. This is the kind of thing one tolerates in writers, but Mary had no tolerance.
Moore’s ceding of power to her mother is especially bizarre in light of the brilliant career Moore was making outside the home. She had always worked: in Carlisle, she taught at the Indian School, where Jim Thorpe, the great football player, was among her students. In New York, she held a job at the New York Public Library, but it was through her work at The Dial—the little magazine, once edited by Margaret Fuller, that had been repurposed as an avant-garde journal—that she made her name. Moore became the managing editor of the magazine in 1925, and then, in 1926, its editor-in-chief for almost three years, until the money ran out and the magazine folded. By day, she was corresponding with Pound or publishing Hart Crane. By night, she and her mother were hunched over their microscopic meals in an apartment so puny that Moore sometimes ate dinner perched on the edge of the bathtub. Leavell says that Mary did everything to entice her daughter to eat “except serve appetizing meals”; the two of them shared leftover sardines for Thanksgiving one year. At one point, Marianne was dangerously thin, weighing only seventy-five pounds. I suppose this could be called anorexia, but if your mother is the prime source of sustenance and she never feeds you anything appetizing the problem is not in your head.
Mary Moore’s influence over her daughter, even after she became one of the most intriguing figures in the New York avant-garde, makes Moore’s particular New York story one of the weirdest ever. Artists and writers from all over America and the world were coming to New York around that time to reinvent themselves, leaving the provinces behind for good. By and large, they were not bringing their mothers with them. Moore was twenty-eight before she made an extended visit alone to New York, staying for ten days in 1915, and meeting Alfred Stieglitz and others at 291, his famous gallery on Fifth Avenue. This episode she called her “Sojourn in the Whale,” describing it in detail to Warner and writing, back home in Carlisle, a poem that suggested the “obstacles” in the way of her New York life, while promising to plow ahead anyway. “Water in motion is far from level,” the poem concludes. “You have seen it, when obstacles happened to bar / the path, rise automatically.” But any tide that was going to lift Marianne would have to lift Mary, too.
And so it was that Marianne Moore’s mother became a central fact of modernism. Moore thought about art in terms of her mother’s values, and about her mother in the emerging framework of modernism. Others did, too; they were given no choice. When, in 1920, Bryher, the daughter of the richest man in England, visits New York, she meets Moore and her mother for tea. A famous photograph by Cecil Beaton and a canvas by Marguerite Zorach, now in the Smithsonian, both show Marianne with Mary lurking watchfully in the background. When Moore was the editor of The Dial, Leavell reveals, Mary handled much of the official correspondence, including “long, personal letters to George Saintsbury,” the eminent literary man. When Elizabeth Bishop sent Moore the draft of “Roosters,” the two Moores stayed up late rewriting it, and urged her to cut the execrable phrase “water-closet.”
Bishop refers to that episode in her great memoir of Moore, “Efforts of Affection,” which gives us the clearest picture we have of life in the Moore household. Moore’s mother was in her seventies when Moore adopted Bishop as a friend and a protégée, in 1934. The Brooklyn apartment was outfitted to receive visitors and, soon after, to send them on their way. A cigar burn in the railing of the staircase was, Mrs. Moore claimed, a relic of one of Pound’s visits; if your entire visit goes by while your cigar smokes on the railing, you probably do not stay long. (Later, when Bishop asked Pound about it, he laughed and said that he hadn’t smoked a cigar since he was eighteen.) A bowl of coins sat near the door for subway fare home; one saw it on one’s way in. Bishop would smoke a cigarette and drink a single glass of Dubonnet: “I had a suspicion that I was possibly the only guest who drank this Dubonnet, because it looked very much like the same bottle, at the level it had been on my last visit, for many months.”
Bishop was offered tea, occasionally dinner, and once had to say grace. When she praises a new poem, “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” Mrs. Moore responds, “Yes, I am so glad that Marianne has decided to give the inhabitants of the zoo . . . a rest.” Bishop continues:
Waiting for the conclusion of her longer statements, I grew rather nervous; nevertheless I found her extreme precision enviable and thought I could detect echoes of Marianne’s own style in it: the use of double or triple negatives, the lighter and wittier ironies—Mrs. Moore had provided a kind of ground bass for them. It went beyond accompaniment. Mother and daughter were skilled at impersonating each other, and the endeavor on both sides was to blur the line where one of them ended and the other began. Impersonation of her mother was, in part, the root of Moore’s genius. Moore wanted her readers to see her work as, to some extent, the stone-setting of her mother’s phrases in the pliant metal of her own lines. Her borrowings from her mother contribute to some of her most famous lines, including, perhaps, her most famous lines of all, from “Poetry”:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Both “beyond all this fiddle” and “a perfect contempt for it” are Mrs. Moore’s phrases. When one realizes this, the poem, “agreeing” not with imputed public sentiment but with Mary Moore’s actual distaste for her daughter’s art, comes to seem rather sad.
It was part of an over-all aesthetics of untraceable quotation, much more radical, in its way, than the allusions to Homer or Shakespeare or Marvell that were practiced by Pound and Eliot. Moore provided this “postscript” to her “Selected Poems,” in lieu of a dedication:
Dedications imply giving, and we do not care to make a gift of what is insufficient; but in my immediate family there is one “who thinks in a particular way”; and I should like to add that where there is an effect of thought or pith in these pages, the thinking and often the actual phrases are hers.
Channelling her mother’s “effect of thought,” borrowing her “pith”: these were not merely acts of homage; they set up an artistic challenge, as steep as the ones that any writer of the time had set for herself. The challenge was to free, by arrangement into art, a whole world of private reference culled both from Moore’s conversation and letters, and from her idiosyncratic reading and collecting. This was not “The Waste Land,” with its Cleopatra cameo and its sampling of the Upanishads. One person’s peculiar cosmos would have to stand in for the world.
I hope this biography sends readers back to Moore’s poems, especially as copyright expires and they enter the public domain. Her editions have failed her; it is still not possible to possess, in one reliable, easily available volume, all of Moore’s books in the order in which she published them, with notes explaining the confusing ways in which they were altered, arranged, and rearranged throughout her career, by Moore and others. “Poetry” was thirty lines when it was first published, in “Observations” (1924), then expanded to thirty-five lines for “Selected Poems” (1935), before being cut to three lines in “Complete Poems” (1967). Her stern headnote to that last volume was designed, like Keats’s living hand, to admonish us from the grave: “Omissions are not accidents.” But in many cases they were mistakes.
If you read Moore’s poems from the beginning, with Leavell’s biography in hand and, nearby, a small stack of books, including Moore’s “Selected Letters,” Charles Molesworth’s excellent “Marianne Moore: A Literary Life,” and Bonnie Costello’s definitive critical study, “Imaginary Possessions,” you find, in her various guises, as complete a self-portrait as any American poet has conveyed. Like the elephant, she could say, “I do these / things which I do, which please / no one but myself,” and boast the poet’s boast: “My ears are sensitized to more than the sound of / the wind.” What she said of the “rust-backed mongoose,” she could have said of herself: “Its restlessness was / its excellence”:
it was praised for its wit;
and the jerboa, like it,
a small desert rat,
and not famous, that
lives without water, has
She found in “The Frigate Pelican” a model of absorption, hiding “in the height and in the majestic / display of his art.” In “People’s Surroundings” (the kind of people she met, perhaps, at literary parties in New York), she noticed how you could learn, among the gaudy “Sèvres china and the fireplace dogs,” “what to skip,” and that amid the ornament “there is something attractive about a mind that moves in a straight line”—her own mind, as opposed to that of Scofield Thayer, her wealthy friend and onetime suitor, whose penthouse the poem describes. She admired the “contractility” of the snail, its “modesty,” but the poetry is more often tensile, relentless, and almost terrifyingly matter-of-fact about its power, like the “python that crushes to powder.”
For all her interest in zoo animals, newspaper clippings, museums, curios, and circuses, she wanted the direct experience of life and loathed the idea of art for art’s sake. And so her poems are often explorations of their own failure to capture, because no poem could capture, the fugitive nature of reality. An obstinately real creature like the ostrich becomes, in her great poem of 1941, “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron’ ” (she lifted the title from John Lyly’s sixteenth-century romance “Euphues”), the “one remaining rebel” of the otherwise extinct class of flightless birds—moas, aepyornises—only by being “magnificently speedy.” She had a horror of the ornate: it stank somehow of death, as these lines about the misuse of ostriches, among the most devastating in American poetry, make clear:
Six hundred ostrich-brains served
at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped-tent
and desert spear, jewel-
gorgeous ugly egg-shell
goblets, eight pairs of ostriches
in harness, dramatize a meaning
always missed by the externalist.
“The power of the visible is the invisible” is that “meaning,” a lesson and a line Moore got from her mother. When Mrs. Moore died, in 1947, Marianne came into her own: virtually all the famous images of her, often in tricorn hat and black cape, are from the last two decades of her life. But all the poems that will last are from the period when, monitored by her mother, she found a style adequate both to Mrs. Moore’s proprieties and to the world’s abundance. “Capacity for fact” was what she called it in “An Octopus,” a “relentless accuracy” so unlike the fussbudgetry she came, for some, to represent.
Like the ostrich, she defied description: her career made mincemeat of the critics, usually men, who thought they were praising her. R. P. Blackmur said it was Moore’s gift that drove her “to poetry instead of antimacassars.” Stanley Kunitz compared her mind to “your grandmother’s attic”; John Updike likened the effect of her poems to “a sparkling clear, well-swept attic.” That manly man Robert Bly thought her work to be “a treasure house—a feminine one” of “knickknacks carefully arranged.” She gets filed under “E” for “eccentricity,” but she belongs there under “engineering”: poetry was, for her, an applied art, a technology. It had what William James said the best words have: a “practical cash value.” It is fitting that throughout her life she entered advertising competitions and, when Ford came calling, took the bait. But her poetry was nothing like an Edsel, with its Teletouch transmission and outlandish lines; it was “not brittle but / intense,” precisely like her “Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish”:
Here we have thirst
and patience, from the first,
and art, as in a wave held up for us to see
in its essential perpendicularity;
not brittle but
intense—the spectrum, that
spectacular and nimble animal the fish,
whose scales turn aside the sun’s sword
by their polish. ♦