“Eco-poetry,” Jacqueline Moore tells an interviewer in the last pages of “Chasing the Grass,” “is poetry about the earth, and the crisis we are in now. It is a response to our endangered world.”

Living as we do in a time when high art is expected far and wide to serve some explicit social-political-moral purpose, the poems in Moore’s new book, “Chasing the Grass,” fit the script perfectly. Climate change is — unbeknownst to almost everybody, or so it seems — the most urgent problem on Planet Earth. It’s partly a matter of sheer survival and partly a matter of moral responsibility. And that moral sphere is really where “eco-” intersects with “poetry.” For one of the functions of good poetry, whether you realize it or not, is to awaken your moral sensibilities in hopes of breaking through to your spiritual life. Whether that awakening should involve an explicit call to morality — characterized in the 19th century by the word “didactic” — or an aesthetic jolt, is debatable. But one thing you hope for is some kind of illumination, whether derived from visual imagery or from the music of language.

Moore’s poetry relies principally on visual imagery, often combining it with narrative, social and historical context to create its moments of moral illumination. “Strip miners / digging up our ancestors / with your backhoes, / listen to our ghosts // hissing, hissing / over your uranium tailings,” say the implicit Hopi narrators of “Flickerings in the Air at Peabody Coal.” In “Scorpions of the Earth,” narrators from the other side of the picture intrude:

 

A hundred acres of money-wood

and you’re whining about warblers?

Cut those trees or somebody else will.

 

We’ll come with our John Deere

fifty-thousand dollar skidders

and work ’em to death.

 

Many loggers won’t be pleased by this sardonic rendition of a certain exploitative disposition to trees, but in a way (Moore’s overall point might be), too bad. When the woods are gone, then cash, clearcut, “and your memories of birdsong” are the niggard, irresponsible remains.

There are poems about acid rain (“From NASA’s Satellite”) and debased land (“Indian Pipes”), and poems instructing the arrantly irresponsible on their responsibilities (“Oilman, walk away / from the miles of pipeline / exalted over the tundra”).

Many poems in the collection weave in other hot literary topics, as in “Spinning with the Light”: “Outside Sufi walls / it’s safe for a woman / to turn, turn, turn.” An anti-war poem, “Green War,” imagines the vegetable world inexorably fighting back against “the treads of your humvees.”

The book’s final section offers poems that lift us beyond moral indignation, irony and instruction into the glimmers of spiritual illumination available, at just the right moment, in the natural world. “Slow Time,” given here in its entirety, seems like the sensibility the whole book, and maybe Moore’s own long, aesthetically rich life, has been angling for:

 

Blind to the charm

of the moment,

we fracture an hour,

lose the day.

 

Better to be a crane

still and silent

in a flowing stream,

waiting for a fish.

 

Water flows

through a carp’s gills

in slow time —

like Tao.

 

When a poet recognizes that time can collapse like this, you are in the vicinity of the reality that underlies, or encompasses, the natural and moral worlds. Not all eco-poetry reaches this higher ground with this authenticity.

Jacqueline Moore, 93, lives in Portland, and spent a good part of her well-lived life  in Morrill. She is also the author of “Living Tilted: Poems.” “Chasing the Grass” is available from Littoral Books, local book stores and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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