Poetry Review: All the Men I Never Married by Kim Moore

Poetry book - All the Men I Never Married by Kim MooreI’d been looking forward to reading Kim Moore’s new collection for a while, having heard her read many of these poems at various literary festivals and events. As I opened the book and began to read, I could hear her voice in my head. These are lyrical poems, designed to be heard as well as read. They are poems that speak with a clear, unapologetic, feminist voice, breaking the taboos of acceptance and denial. Each poem feels larger on the inside than the outside, and several of the poems seem to echo in your mind, long after you’ve read them.   

At first, I was disconcerted by the lack of individual poem titles. Each poem is numbered. But then I remembered how Moore reads her poems. Each poem shares the same, all-encompassing title, and if you imagine this title at the top of each page, before the number, if you call each poem ‘All the Men I Never Married, No. X’, they all become a part of something communal and expansive, more than just a collection of poems on separate pages. This repeated title emphasises the sheer volume of ongoing misogyny, arrogance, shame and denial played out on the pages of the book. It’s a book that could go on forever.

Moore is a master of repetition within her poems too. ‘All the Men I Never Married No.7’ highlights the imbalance of power between a young girl and an older man. The scene plays out on a log flume:

At the bottom of the drop when you’ve screamed
and been splashed by the water, when you’re about
to stand up, clamber out, the man behind
reaches forward, and with the back of his knuckle
brushes a drop of water from your thigh.

To be touched like that, for the first time.
And you are not innocent, you’re fifteen,
something in you likes that you were chosen.
It feels like power…

But this sense of power is undermined by the repetition of the word ‘nothing’ in the following stanza, as the apparent insignificance of this small act conflicts with the truth of what has taken place:

You pretend that nothing has happened,
you turn it to nothing, you learn that nothing
is necessary armour you must carry with you,
it was nothing, you must have imagined it.

This incident is not ‘nothing’. It should shock us, as readers. Why doesn’t it shock us? The poem asks this question. Indeed, all of Moore’s poems interrogate our own judgement, our own complacency, whatever our gender.

This is a collection that does not just interrogate our attitudes towards female sexuality. It forces us, as readers, to acknowledge our complex, and sometimes contradictory, attitudes towards others. In ‘All the Men I Never Married No.1’ the speaker pauses, mid-poem, to ask us directly, ‘are you judging me yet, are you surprised?’. The phrasing, with its pointed ‘yet’, implies that we will judge, it is simply a matter of when.

Each poem presents us with a reality check, forcing us to examine our own feelings, to question our own assumptions – about our own bodies, our own encounters, our own relationships. At the centre of the collection sits an incredible sonnet sequence written in response to the exploitation of women in deepfake videos (where photos are taken from social media posts and altered for pornographic use). Poems like these feel almost physical, as if they are beginning to eat away at misogyny itself.

In ‘All the Men I Never Married No.1’ the speaker employs the potency of language to take control over each recollection of intimacy:

when I whisper your names it isn’t a curse or a spell or a blessing I’m not mourning your passing or calling you here this is something harder like walking alone in the dusk and the leaves this is the naming of trees this is a series of flames this is watching you all disappear.

Although many of the poems recount incident after incident of women being belittled, objectified or preyed upon, the poems themselves subvert this power imbalance in all sorts of ways, using language to reclaim some of that power, to celebrate female desire and physicality. We have such strange and complicated relationships with our own bodies; we feel shame and awkwardness, but also desire and satisfaction. This collection acknowledges such complexity, while questioning the patriarchal social norms that we seem to absorb without thinking.

I especially like the prose poem ‘All the Men I Never Married No. 12’ which begins ‘After the reading a man waits around to tell me the poem I read about a beautiful man who thought he knew everything was objectifying men’. The poem goes on to recount their conversation, acknowledging, as it does so, that even the poet herself is continually re-assessing her own acceptance of the way in which men treat women:

…he interrupts again – isn’t the man in your poem a bit one dimensional he opines – can’t you make him more interesting – just trying to be helpful he says holding his hands up like two little flags – like two dishcloths – like two dead moles hung on a fence – I reply no I can’t – that is the best thing about him – or maybe I’m just wishing I said that – maybe I just smiled – nodded my head

This collection is bursting with playfulness and irony, expressing uncomfortable truths about the culture in which we live through poems that shimmer and stretch before your eyes. It’s a book that will make you reconsider your own assumptions, from one poem to the next. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

All the Men I Never Married is published by Seren Books.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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