Ken Currie, Three Oncologists (Professor RJ Steele, Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri and Professor Sir David P Lane of the Department of Surgery and Molecular Oncology, Ninewells Hospital, Dundee), 2002, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery was just a refuge from the pipers and Fringe flyers on Princes Street, so I was unprepared for this whopping triple portrait, executed at dramatic scale and measuring 2½ metres by 2 metres. The floor dropped away and the gallery vanished. I had disturbed Professor Sir Alfred Cushieri and felt foolish in T-shirt and jeans. These oncologists had pierced the veil and were mapping the uncharted reaches of space. They laboured on the edge of a precipice and the view was both sublime and terrifying.

In part, Moore’s debut collection reprises her two stunning pamphlets: the existentially inquiring, honest and dignified The Only Reason for Time, and Night Letter, short-listed for the Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets, 2016, and torn between poles of hope and despair. Both pamphlets sold out, so their availability in book form is a blessing.

Some of the collection’s new poems also explore the loss of a loved one and ‘The Oncologist’ took me back to Ken Currie’s extraordinary portrait. The poem opens:

Poets are meant to suffer. Use it, he said,
sprawled across your bed writing his notes.
You’d gone out for a pee, the ward was quiet.
I told him how frightening it was, and his look
told me he understood – he’d nursed his wife
and watched death take many of the pale figures
queuing at his clinic.

Moore’s oncologist towers with Cushieri and his colleagues. His bold opening statement (he even starts the poem) suggests his considered thought – and of course he appreciates that no-one is better placed to document the human experience than a poet. He’s powerful too as he commands the narrator to ‘use’ her experience for her good – for the general good. Moore implies the intimacy of his ongoing care with economy as the oncologist is ‘sprawled’ across the bed. And suddenly he’s a priest of sorts, as the poem’s ‘you’ leaves for a pee, creating a moment of intimacy – and showing how disease and dying drops its pockets of secrecy within our relationships. This poem is subtle, unflinching stuff. Although initially perceived as powerful and relaxed, we learn that the oncologist ‘nursed his wife’ – traditionally a female role – and reminding us that death knocks every door.


Photo credit: Duncan Hull (Flickr)

Some of the collection’s new poems negotiate our responses to places with perception and precision. ‘Taking Visitors to Auschwitz’ opens:

It’s here
except it’s not.
This could be anywhere or on the edges of.
That car’s parked askew
and sparrows forage on the tarmac
while people pose each other at the entrance.


Plötzensee (photo credit: glassexyes view)

Even the poem’s indefinite articles refuse to name the place as, sickeningly, Auschwitz becomes another destination – except that it can never be another destination. The poem develops, Auschwitz remains unnamed and, increasingly, this feels like an evasion. Repetitions pile up: ‘Better to wait, / better to wait’, ‘Coaches drop off groups […] Coaches drop off groups’ and whether we believe in ghosts, or not, Moore’s extermination camp maintains a whiff of itself as it processes people on an industrial scale. She pulls off a similar effect with another Second World War poem, ‘The Cell at Plötzensee’. The poem’s speaker rejects the idea of the supernatural, having worked in a Warsaw building, once used [‘they say’] as a Gestapo prison ‘but never truly sensed a ghost’. However, at Plötzensee, Hitler’s would be assassins were:

[…] to be hanged like cattle.
Hanging from hooks was meant to last longer. Their deaths
may have been filmed, though no film survives unless in some

hidden cabinet of secrets or dark net. The meat-hooks
could be slid along the flange of the high iron beam
where five still dangled in a line, narrow and bare.

There, in the space between ‘five’ and ‘still’ the cell is haunted by Hitler’s would be assassins – except they’re only there because the speaker has added them for us, as they were, in turn, added for her: ‘Unless only the hooks are shown // and I’ve drawn the bodies from a slaughterhouse image’.

Moore’s is a rare gift. We occasionally encounter artists, gatekeepers, who work at the limits of the known, of the utterable. Their work is shamanistic – rooted to experience, woven from the fabric of the universe. Moore would, doubtless contend this quasi-spiritual claptrap but her work achieves this. Like Currie’s oncologists, her poems shimmer with unworldliness, despite their grounding.

Buy The Distal Point from HappenStance