‘The Reluctant Vegetarian’ by Richard Moorhead (Oystercatcher Press, 2009)

-Reviewed by Eleanor Turney

Opening with a potato is a bold move in any circle, and I am not convinced that it pays off in Richard Moorhead’s pamphlet. Moorhead’s collection of fruit and vegetable poems is more a set of images – some clever, some arresting, some beautiful, some contrived – than a cohesive whole.

He has a lovely way with words, sometimes. He occasionally lifts the vegetables onto a higher plane, and invests each with more significance and beauty than it would otherwise have – and there is a joy to that, a sense of revelling in the sheer mundanity of his subjects (broad bean, cabbage, peach) and a pleasure in elevating them. However, despite some gorgeous one-liners and a scattering of beautiful images, I can’t help feeling that this collection is trying too hard to be weighty. For all the hard work that Moorhead demands of his language, I can’t forget that he’s writing about, well, vegetables. I start wondering what, exactly, is the point. I’m also not sure what Moorhead’s beef is with capital letters. If having all lower case serves the poem, then go for it, but here it feels tacked-on – too much like the shopping list that his contents page resembles and not enough like the dictionary definitions the poems strive for.

Moorhead’s style deliberately breaks up each image in the poem, which is part of what keeps this collection from feeling like a designed whole rather than a chance collection. I dislike the dictionary-style numbering of each point – it reduces the poem to a list and prevents the images from speaking to each other and building on each other. Changing this would, perhaps, allow each poem to become more than the sum of its parts. The differentiation is somewhat alienating to read, and leads to a disjunct between the lightness with which he treats each image and the weightier significance he appears to be lending each poem.

Even with some of the well-constructed images, I get the impression that Moorhead has written them because he likes the way they sound, rather than because he believes in what he is saying. I don’t have a problem with manipulating and playing with sound and language just for the hell of it, but one needs a more dextrous grasp of words than Moorhead has to be successful. He returns often to bodily images – thumbs and eyes – but it’s clumsy, to the point where I wonder whether it illustrates a lack of imagination rather than thematic stitching.

Overall, then, this is an interesting concept, and a bold idea, but I’m not entirely convinced that vegetables are the right subject for an entire collection of poetry. Splitting the poems by season is a cute idea, but doesn’t really become enough to hold the collection together. Despite the obvious links between the poems this pamphlet doesn’t really hang together as a complete set of ideas. I get the impression that Moorhead intends it to, but the pamphlet seems to lack the courage to really invest in the poems. Moorhead can’t decide if he wants to indulge his slightly lurid descriptive tendencies (which are mostly successful) or his sexually charged metaphors (which are less so). So, he tries to do both, and more, and the poems just can’t bear the weight of what he is asking them to do.

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