Remembering Richard Moore, 1927-2009

Oct 23, 2019 | Conversations | 2 comments

In memory of the upcoming tenth anniversary of my father’s death, I thought I’d take a moment to remember the poet Richard Moore, 1927-2009.

During the last months of his life, Richard wrote the following fragment. What better person to share his accomplishments than himself.

“Throughout a long life, Richard Moore has won through to the belief that the only real reward in the art of writing is the writing itself. The first of his nineteen books was published and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when he was forty-four. The books that followed have brought the total to a novel, a book of literary essays, translations of a Greek tragedy and a Roman comedy and fifteen books of poetry, which include a sequence of fifty-eight Petrarchian sonnets, an epic of American history and an epic whose hero is a mouse born and raised in a sewer.”

A pilot in the Air Force, a university professor, a poet and fierce seeker of truth, to me he was my father. I loved and admired him deeply. Ours was a complicated relationship, one that has found its way into a number of stories over the years. I’ve reprinted the short memoir I wrote for a tribute issue of Light Quarterly published shortly after Richard’s death.

My Father’s Walk

One evening when I was eight or nine, my sisters and I piled into the Volvo sedan that my grandmother had bought for us. My father drove past Memorial Park with its picnic tables and tame bay beaches to the rugged coastline of Kalmus Park. We spent August on Cape Cod, our days busy gathering shells and hermit crabs on seaweed-strewn beaches, swimming in the icy Atlantic ocean and bike riding past marshes and cattails as we swooped around curves and furiously pumped up hills.

We owned two ramshackle cottages set back from the road. My mother, my two sisters and I would stay in the big cottage, while my father would settle into the little cottage nestled further back in the scrubby pines. With his odd hours and need for quiet, it was understood that my father would live both with us and apart. During the rest of the year he would emerge from his study late in the afternoon, and after his daily walk we would sit down to dinner as a family. Sometimes I’d ask if I could go with him on his walk. His face would scrunch up as he considered my request, but the answer was always the same. This was not a part of his life he was willing to share.

On Cape Cod, though, the rules would bend, and my father would allow us a little closer to his world. Sometimes, when I asked if I could come on his nightly walk, he said yes.

As the moon rose over a glistening sea, my father parked the car at Kalmus Park and my sisters and I stuffed our socks into our shoes and ran down to the beach. The sand, so hot during the day, was cool against the soles of my bare feet, the sky filled with stars. When I searched out my father, I discovered that he had disappeared into the cavernous darkness swallowing the shore. I knew better than to call out, to try and draw him back, so I took comfort in the sight of my sisters careening in and out of view like bats over the sand.    

Venturing down to the water, I dipped my toes into the black liquid sea. A pathway beckoned, a swath of moonshine, each peaked wave glinting with light. It was so tempting, this fairy path, and I wondered what lay beneath, what underworld, this place Persephone knew. My father had told me about Persephone. And her father, and Zeus, and the chariots that flew across the sky. I waded further out, my ankles numb with cold. The pathway fractured with each step.

When I looked back I saw my father materialize from the darkness, his white t-shirt first, then his wind-whipped hair and beard. I ran to join him, and my sisters and I scampered back up the beach to our car. Instead of piling into the back seat, though, my father let us climb outside onto the sloping trunk of the car. Quiet, reverent, even, we recognized that this was not allowed, that we were breaking a grow-up rule that even my father was supposed to follow. He drove slowly out of the parking lot as the mica-flecked asphalt rolled out from under the rear bumper. I leaned back and gazed at the sky with its vast swath of stars, the world inverted on the dew-slick surface of my grandmother’s car.

Too soon we reached the end of the deserted beach road. My father pulled over to the curb so we could file reluctantly back into the car. The doors clicked shut, the normality of our lives restored. But the ocean remained in the wet sand between my toes. I’d watched my father disappear into darkness only to reappear like a dream. I’d followed pathways sparkling with light, and I knew that on the other side of a broken rule lay a new way of seeing the world.

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