Image: Paul Cezanne’s *Pyramid of Skulls*
by J. L. Moultrie
Today I’m pleased to introduce my dear friend and colleague, poet and writer J. L. Moultrie. I’ve known J. L. just a few months, and we’ve never met in person. But through his writing, and through a long and rich series of emails, I’ve come to know a sensitive, articulate, and gifted soul. J.L. has alchemised a conflicted personal history into art: the ultimate act of spirituality. J.L.’s prose is precise, while managing to leave room for the great unknowns of life — unknowns that he faces with courage and grace. J.L.’s poetry achieves startling sensory effects with austere language. In conversation, J.L. is both grounded and empathetic; both pragmatic and engaged by philosophical debate.
J.L. inspires me to balance my drive with empathy. Our approaches to writing are just similar enough, and just distinct enough, that we have become useful critics of one another’s work. Together, we are fighting one of the toughest challenges that face any writer: showing rather than telling. Our best work achieves this. We feel confident that, some day, all our work will.
J. L. lives in Michigan with his partner, a Norweigian forest cat, and a mutt dog. Both animals are rescued. J. L. is a practising Buddhist. His poetry and prose have been published in numerous magazines including Sonder Midwest, Datura, Rigorous, Modern Poetry Quarterly Review, Oroboro, and Terror House. J.L. is working on his memoirs, and on his guitar skills.
Today, J.L. shares with us a previously published poem, *Memento Mori,* as well as an essay putting the poem in context.
By: J.L. Moultrie
My youth was spent in
a room; I could nearly
touch the opposing walls with
both hands. At sixteen, there
was an incident inside of me.
It must have been a spectacle-
worthy of slowing down your
car to watch.
The days are
dark blue, but each sublevel of
grief reveals another hue.
A flock of pigeons nest in
the attic. I have the habit
of not knowing what my body
will do next. It was a daydream.
My own voice sounds strange
when I say things. Suicidal
ideation is hard to
With the patience
of August butterflies, I walk
in and out of fields. The
catalyst to heal is covered
in blood and dust – its
patina feels like braille.
My cell is somewhat Darwinian,
each conclusion is a facet of the
I go on sinning;
cauterizing each nerve
ending. My altercation
with the sky is just
a parade of images.
The germ of ambivalence
rests in my genes. These
scenes cease departure, breaking
my skin; revealing a kid
in the throes of neglect.
Memento Mori: Artist’s statement
“A poem should not mean
– Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”
“Memento Mori” was wrought by suffering. Time, however, provides us with the gift of distance. I wrestled with my discomfort as you do with an unwanted garment on your body, struggling with it desperately. Until, finally, you hold it before your eyes, regarding its every detail, arms outstretched.
The poem is my attempt at excavation – laying out the artifacts of my adolescent experience plainly, without obfuscation. I found inhabiting my body frightening. I tried to give voice to my fear and the terrain of my psyche in those dark moments. Like many youths, I did not have the agency, resources, or support to process or escape what was eating me alive.
In the piece, I wanted to confront the circumstances I did not have words to describe then – the incessant ugliness, poverty, turbulence, instability, and trauma. At the same time, my goal was to distill and transmute it into something artistic and, hopefully, inspiring to others.
Imbuing each of my poems with emotional weight, intensity, and immediacy is always a priority. In my experience, this can only be accomplished if I tell the truth. The bedroom referenced in the first stanza was the first bedroom I’d ever had – at sixteen. I remember being so excited to have private space that it didn’t even remotely register that it was the size of a walk-in closet.
Themes of blindness and sight are hinted at in the first and third stanzas – I was oblivious to the hardships I’d endured. Until I was in my twenties, when I began sharing my story with various individuals. Their collective reactions startled me into realization. Before that, what I’d experienced hadn’t seemed abnormal. Because that was all I’d ever known.
One of my favorite philosophers, Cornel West, often says in his public lectures, “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” He borrowed this quote from Theodor A. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, where Adorno writes: “To lend a voice to suffering is a condition of all truth.” I was a very quiet kid – there was a lot of turmoil and heartbreak happening inside of me. “Memento Mori” resulted from the understanding and expression of my own turmoil afforded by time.
I remain indebted to Sarah and Diana of OROBORO accepting the piece and suggesting I break it into stanzas.
Thank you for reading.
J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.