Unlike some poets who torture the language and reader’s sensibilities, Robert ‘red hawk’ Moore writes poetry that’s honest and accessible, though sometimes painful. His work has garnered comparisons to Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.
His newest book, “Wreckage With A Beating Heart,” provides 300 pages of poems in four sections exploring the universal themes of love, life and death. One poem even describes his vision quest at a sweat lodge that gave him the nickname red hawk – two words not capitalized, he notes.
You can’t fool the Sweat Lodge.
It reveals everything, courage and stupidity
alike. Courage comes from the Earth;
stupidity is the only thing
we can honestly claim as our own.
– from “Red Hawk Is Not An Indian Name”
“What I saw in my vision was my sign: sun dawning over mountain and two birds flying into the sun,” he says. “The death of self is the birth of love. The moment that I had that vision was in the dead of winter on the Buffalo River – everywhere no humans, two red-tail hawks flying into the sun. Earth named me and showed me my direction in life at that moment in 1975. That was the moment that the bond of my mother the earth was internalized for me.”
Noting the similarities between life’s dominant themes of love and death, red hawk enjoys examining what it personally means.
“Death is love,” red hawk says while lying on his back in his office. “In order for love to flourish, I have to die to myself and live for others without regard to myself. Love is the greatest freedom; love is the greatest slavery. Unless I understand both sides, I never get the full impact of love. Love is the greatest responsibility in human life.”
He promises to tell the truth about himself regardless of how it makes him look. Nothing lies beyond examination: some poems explain his betrayal of his daughter’s love and trust, while others examine his loss of respect for his father. It seems the more it hurts, the better the poem. By using personal experiences, red hawk evokes sympathy for humankind’s eventual loss of innocence.
When your mother dies, cities should burn
and the slow galaxies should cease to turn
– from “At My Mother’s Funeral”
Once the laughter died in childhood
it never mattered
what was left; like a fine china cup it was shattered
and no good:
you can glue it with the greatest delicacy
but it still won’t hold any tea.
– from “When the Laughter Died”
Other poems provide insightful social commentary on issues as diverse as the insanity of humankind, suicide, the Maryland snipers, degrading women, hypocritical truth-mongers, social class divisions, ecological disaster and the problems of blind patriotism:
[W]e wave the flag, we
cheer and scream and weep and pull our hair and
we send them rank and file by the millions
marching straight into the oven to be roasted
while the Hungry Ghost stands by exhorting us,
in one hand a sharpened boning knife,
in the other
– from “The Hungry Ghost”
While the poem “I Want to Die Like Mary Lou” continues the notion that few die well (There are any number of ways to measure a saint; one way would be the death without complaint), red hawk decries war’s results:
No mother ever profited from war;
Only men profit, women weep.
That alone is enough to condemn the enterprise;
What makes women weep is not worth the doing.
– from “The Weeping of Women Is the Only Dharma We Need”
Though he calls himself a novice and says he always writes like a beginner, red hawk’s previous books include a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award (“Journey of the Medicine Man,” August House, 1983), a runner-up for the Patterson Poetry Prize (“The Sioux Dog Dance,” Cleveland State University, 1991), a nominee for the National Book Award (“The Way of Power,” Hohm Press, 1996) and a nominee for the Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Prize (“The Art of Dying,” Hohm Press, 1999). His poems have appeared in “The Atlantic,” “Kenyon Review,” “Poetry” and “Atlanta Review.” But this sixth book of poetry provides a sense of urgency.
“I put together this book like I was going to die any minute,” red hawk says. “This is what I wanted to leave people with.”
He began writing seriously at the age of 18. In over 44 years of writing poetry, the 62-year-old red hawk made a conscious decision to write for the common man.
“I made the choice to write in a plain language, not flowery, not even poetic,” red hawk says, “but to write in a language accessible to everyone age 10-100, because I understood I had something worthwhile to say and I wanted to be understood. If you don’t have much to say, you use language that’s difficult to cover up the fact they don’t have shit to say.”
He notes poetry and religion share links to the human heart, calling poetry “mankind’s connection to the creator.”
“I recognized pretty early on that the poems I was producing knew more than I did and were teaching me,” red hawk says. “I would get these poems and I’d see, ‘I’ve got to live that or I won’t produce any more.’ I’ve got to be that kind of man. Otherwise that source won’t give me anymore. What was that source wasn’t me. You can call it God or whatever you want. It’s something higher than us, wiser, knows more. When you tap into that you better clean up your shit or it’ll burn you alive. The history of poetry is littered with the corpses of people who tapped into that source and didn’t clean up their act. Poetry compels me to lead a clean and frugal life if I want to go all the way to the end with it … and I do. You tap into that source and it is hot. It’ll burn you alive unless you surrender to it and surrender life to it and serve it.”
Academic, but not an academic poet
I am at a conference of writing teachers
where they read aloud the papers they wrote
and the writing is heartbreakingly bad,
it is no wonder the young hate writing
– from “What Is This Shit?”
An associate professor of English, red hawk not only serves poetry, but also serves students at the University of Arkansas at Monticello since 1997. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Illinois State University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. Yet he does not produce academic poetry.
“What I call my poetry is gut poetry,” red hawk says. “I don’t like academic poetry – head only, no heart, no gut. I want head, heart and gut together. When you get head, heart and gut together, you’ve got a whole ‘nother level of art. Head with no heart is death and destruction. Heart with no gut is weak. All three together: you get kindness married to strength, intelligence married to kindness … that’s an unbeatable combination.”
The combination awes students at the southeastern Arkansas school. Todd Kelley, a sophomore, hasn’t taken any classes under red hawk, though he hopes to take a seminar.
“When I met red hawk the first time, I realized I was sitting next to somebody who knew what I thought, who understood me, who knew what I felt,” he says. “He’s taught me a lot of things about myself and a lot of things about how to be what I want to be and how to be OK, how to come to terms with who I am in southern Arkansas in the buckle of the Bible belt.“
Then one day i called her to my office
To work out some minor offense i can barely remember
and when she told me her story, i believed her,
i saw she was no liar, though i could see
she did not expect to be believed, looked up at me,
then down, then up again and when i said to her,
i believe in you, she wept.
– from “She Awakens to A Deeper Longing”
Former UAM student Brad Amoroso wrote a column about red hawk in the online student newspaper, The Voice (http://thevoice.uamont.edu/). Amoroso states that he almost wished he could re-start his college career to take a class from red hawk.
“He speaks on poetry with such an openness and passion, that the rhythm of his speech becomes almost hypnotic,” Amoroso wrote. “Forget him as a poet; this man is a walking, talking poem.”
The fact that red hawk has given public readings with Alan Ginsberg, Miller Williams, Gary Snider, Rita Dove and Tess Gallagher only adds to student’s awe; some even seem willing to raise red hawk to demigod status.
“That’s the danger,” red hawk says. “I better stay humble and learn from them. If I’m a good teacher it’s because my students have taught me how to be. If you’re going for hearts and minds, you better be honest, humble, kind and sincere. It’s a tremendous responsibility, the responsibility of a parent to his children – that level of obligation. I’ve got to lay my heart on the table and risk having it broken on a daily basis. You can’t fake that. If my heart’s not lying on the table, you’re not going to give me an ounce of your heart unless I give you a pound of mine, because this is a dangerous world. I think that’s a fair trade – a pound of my heart for an ounce of my students’ heart.”
He clearly seems uncomfortable with the idea of being a demigod, though.
“That demigod is for people who don’t understand what I’m saying,” he says. ”I tell my students again and again, ‘Don’t trust what I say. Verify it.’ I don’t want anybody following me or worshipping me … that’s death; that’s not love. That’s the death of love.”
Reading in Little Rock
The Arkansas Repertory Theater will host red hawk and Coleman Barks on Monday, May 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $50, $40, $30 and $25, and can be purchased at the door, online at http://www.blueskyexperience.org or by calling Ticket Alternative at (877) 725-8849. Proceeds will benefit Hospice of Arkansas.
World-famous cellist David Darling (formerly of the Paul Winter Consort) and Glen Velez (hand drum) will accompany Barks, known for his translations of the Persian mystic poet Rumi, as well as for his own poetry. Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Barks taught poetry and creative writing for 34 years, mostly at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., where he still lives and writes.
“Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet, is one of my all-time-favorite poets,” red hawk says. “Barks has become world famous for (his Rumi translations). I love reading with Coleman. I admire his work tremendously.”
Looking forward to the reading, he promises the audience will remember this night.
“If you love poetry you ought to come,” red hawk says. “If you love God you ought to come hear what Rumi has to say through Coleman about God. If you want your heart to be moved … if you want genuine honest bang for your dollar, you’ll come away with something to live by, something to keep you going through the night when the night has been unkind.”
For more information on red hawk or to hear him read his poetry, go tohttp://www.hohmpress.com/Newfiles/authorbrowse/redhawk.html. You can order his book from Hohm Press for $16.95 plus $2.50 postage at P.O. Box 2501, Prescott, Arizona 86302, or online athttp://www.hohmpress.com/Newfiles/books/wrecking-beating.html.
This article originally appeared in the May 1-31, 2005 issue of the Little Rock Free Press.
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