The poems in Alice Pettway’s Moth seem true to their namesake, always bumping and flitting back toward the flame that burns at the center of this big-hearted collection. Pettway’s poetic voice is distinctive from the first poem, “Home”, where she establishes the moth metaphor that shifts in and out of focus in delightful ways throughout the book.
The Moth’s Beloved Flame
“Home” establishes the moth’s beloved flame as a positive/negative, both beautiful and destructive, a duality that plays itself out through the perfect tension that pulses through each subsequent poem. “Home” ends in “a halo of lethal light” and the reader is launched in the next poem straight into a street scene where even nuns frown at you and you are made to feel not of the world. Suddenly, the reader is a long way from home, an adventure is afoot. Next comes “Reconstruction”, a gorgeous distillation of the feeling of being a child and feeling desperate to be needed, efficacious. Throughout, Pettway effortlessly conjures vital images through each concise poem. Rarely do they run beyond a page, many contained to a single stanza.
But the place and world she creates and drops you into within the first line of each poem packs the weight of entire chapters in conventional fiction. These poems are heavy. Picking one up means you will be unable to think about anything else, such is their force and presence. Later returning to the topic of youth in “Divided”, Pettway concludes, “Divides fall easily at a certain age, before the cement sets.” A line which was precluded by references to the Berlin wall, thus not just divulging a truth about what it means to be young and innocent, but also peeling back the layers of what growing up entails, how it can harden us in damaging ways.
Every poem demands deep attention and feels pure for the singular purpose each pursues. Pettway excels at what I like to think of as motorcycle poems. By which I mean there’s just a driver, no passengers allowed, and they always take you somewhere familiarly unfamiliar. Her poems don’t confuse themselves or become occluded by a litany of detail or the drudgery in extensive floridity. They have a point to make, which they do, quickly, before letting your mind absorb the echoing truth the final lines leave behind.
“Inheritance” feels like the emotional climax of the collection, positioned near the end as it is. Told from the perspective of a daughter whose father is dying, the title is cloaked in double meaning between physical objects and emotional baggage, which wrap themselves into the final shivering lines that read, “She expected / forgiveness in the way a child does, // unaware that consequences linger– / a fine powder drifting when the car’s long gone.” It’s no coincidence that “Burial” follows that poem, softening some of the edge from “Inheritance” without sacrificing the visceral in-the-moment quality Pettway’s writing displays consistently in these sixty-odd pages.
In “Cheaha Mountain” Pettway writes, “Flights should end thus, sunk / into the rocks and grown over / by green things.” Finally, she allows the moth to quit chasing the flame, to capitulate, to let future life take over, even atop a stony façade. Moth is a flight. One I’m sure I will take again. At the last page, I realize Pettway has turned me into the eponymous moth, desperate for that beautiful and dangerous fire that burns in only the best poems but which seems to burn here in every poem. Pettway connected me to the easy longings and heavy sorrows of navigating life. And when a poet draws me back to see new humanity, to see more of my own, what else can be said, except thank you.