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bill helmer | poetry of blood and guts

Poetry of Blood and Guts

Todd Moore’s Epic on the Life and Times of John Dillinger

By Bill HelmerThe Chicago Reader June 23, 1988

who is that guy & what is he doing
w/his business suits & pistols
why does the air crack a little
when he walks thru it
why do most people throw in their money
or guns at the sound of his name

–Dillinger, by Todd Moore

Todd Moore is a working poet, which is to say that his work gets published, gets praise from reviewers, attracts attention in the poetry community, and sometimes brings him a buck. Not enough to live on, God knows; for that he teaches junior high school English in Belvidere, Illinois. But his achievements are all the more impressive for his contrariness in subject matter, which is not calculated to please the polite-poetry establishment. For present instance, he is now three books into a 21 -volume series titled Dillinger. That’s right: an epic poem about John Dillinger, the bank robber. The new reviewers are eating it up, and the old ones are conceding that it has, ah, merit. Our Dillinger has found his Homer.

Moore’s been publishing in the journals and little magazines since the early 70s, and his book-length works bear titles like The Dark and Bloody Ground, D.O.A., and Point Blank. Blood and guts poetry, which tends to fend off recognition and approval. The fact that he’s getting those anyway must say something. I don’t know if he’s “the greatest poet of the American Plains since Sandburg,” as some guy gushed in the LA Times, but Dillinger has been subscribed to (I guess that would be the term) at $90 the bunch by libraries, including the New York Public; and volume one, The Name Is Dillinger, has made it to the syllabus of an honors course at the University of Toledo.

What attracted the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, which is bankrolling Dillinger (the publisher is a small one, Kangaroo Court in Erie, Pennsylvania), was Moore’s feeling for the mind-set and value system of a class and a culture he knows firsthand. Moore hasn’t robbed banks or shot anybody, but he was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Freeport and much of his youth was spent in rented rooms of transient hotels because his alcoholic father couldn’t hold jobs in small towns around Chicago. Growing up in the netherworld between country and city, you get to know the personalities and mentalities of the people who make up the pool of restless, poorly socialized young men from which some kinds of criminals are drawn more by chance and circumstance than by their own conscious effort. Moore sees Dillinger as coming from that pool–an adventuristic kid who committed himself to a criminal career almost accidentally, without losing the same traditional values that permitted lots of despairing Depression Americans to identify with him. They were feeling helpless, powerless, frustrated, and no longer in control of their destinies. At least John Dillinger had taken charge of his.

The profoundly stylish booth that Rick Lopez built and designed for Printer’s Row. 1988.06.18-19—Dillinger author Todd Moore and Publisher Rick Lopez at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.

where the rivers converge
where the forest line thins to cornfields & apple orchards
where the prairie begins & a man w/a stick stands in the field
where my father & all his friends were known by their hats and dreamnames
where horses were still magic
where the civil war came up into the north for awhile
where I first learned about stars & and the smell of milk on my mother’s arm
where I was born & became john dillinger …
dillinger of the fists
ballpark dillinger
loved curve balls the pitcher’s control
w/longest curve possible ball
spinning away as though to
fly into the stands the air as though
it will never complete
the arc it was shot from pitcher’s hand
into yet returns caught in
absolute geometry the sliced semi
circle of air poised before home plate
like a wild ricochet that
couldn’t possibly hit target does
catches corner of the plate for out
that wild control of things I love
control of bullets
control of sheriffs
control of banks
control of money
control of women
coming …

Dillinger had the smarts to know that in those hard days robbing banks wasn’t considered the worst of crimes. Moore reminds that the banks had been robbing the people, after all. And Dillinger’s cocky style had popular appeal, as did the confidence he displayed in any “daring daylight robbery.” With his situational ethics, sweet-and-sour personality, and help from the police and the press, he made it to the top–Public Enemy No. 1. Which expressed the feelings more of the authorities than of a public that didn’t mind some distraction and vicarious adventure to take its mind off its own problems.

dillinger of the stolen cars
dillinger of the names not always dillinger
dillinger of the banks that dillinger & the pistols
dillinger of the reward posters & f b i memos
dillinger of the dossiers
dillinger of j edgar hoover’s bad dreams
dillinger of the newspapers & the radio news dillinger
dillinger of the bars clubs & hooker houses
dillinger of Crown Point
dillinger of Little Bohemia
dillinger of the Chicago Century of Progress …

Moore has always been interested in the style and other qualities that delinquents need, and rarely have, to become world-class criminals. His boyhood friends were petty thieves and burglars, small-towners and small-timers. A lot of them had what Dillinger had: a wonderful can-do attitude that works to the advantage of anyone who doesn’t know his own limitations–and thereby isn’t bound by them. Some went to jail in obscurity because they didn’t have what else Dillinger had: quick wits plus self-discipline and a fatalistic self-control that permitted so many successful acts of daring. He also had a self-awareness and a self-image that was greatly enhanced by the U.S. Justice Department, which needed some archcriminals for political reasons. But that’s another part of the story.

Moore is 50 now, a smallish, nice-looking man, settled, with a wife and two sons, all members of the middle-class intelligentsia. But when coming of age on the fringes of working-class society, he made up for his size by using his brain (reading, reading!), which exposed him to alternatives never considered by his peers. Poorly equipped to be a punk, he had no choice but to take the road less traveled.

Possibly he was saved by his imagination: he could imagine the consequences of criminal actions. And by a high school teacher who scholarshiped him off to Northern Illinois University in 1956, where he wandered around the curriculum and eventually arrived at a BA in English. That ruined him totally for a life of crime. He stayed around for a master’s and ended up teaching–thus following his cultural mandate only to the extent he still avoided honest work.

He found himself a member of respectable society, as surprised by this as a juvenile delinquent is surprised to find himself a wanted criminal. Who, me? All I did was accept a scholarship! By going to college he discovered what young criminals discover–that once you’ve done something major like that, you’re marked, and there’s no turning back. And if you understand what’s happened, you make the most of it. In college, Moore could see himself a victim of benevolent circumstances that permitted his escape from a life-style that often was fatal, one way or another.

He drifted into poetry the way some of his friends had drifted into felonies. One high school buddy is now 33 years into a 99-year sentence for a simple car theft that went sour and ended in the killing of a deputy sheriff with his own shotgun. Likewise, Moore started out with nothing more serious than experimental prose. Now he’s using poetry to open windows to a culture that he knows something about for having lived in it. Respectable society can safely look in and glimpse some of the unconscious frustration, power factors, and effectuality issues that make idle minds the proverbial devil’s workshop.

As he made his way up and out of low-rent society, Moore’s interest in criminality was transplanted to movies and the pulps. These often treat the subject as deliberate wrongheadedness, and miss the mark. But some have recognized it as a naturally occurring phenomenon–a “left-handed way of doing business,” as Louis Calhern says in The Asphalt Jungle. That was a theme in movies about the Prohibition-era gangsters who were organized along business lines. Capone, rising from brothel bouncer to multimillionaire crime lord by the age of 30, was a Horatio Alger figure–a self-made man who took advantage of opportunities. If the ostensible intent of gangster movies was to spotlight corruption for the purpose of reform, they also confirmed that crime was an avenue of upward social mobility.

Crime movies changed in the early 30s, thanks in large part to the Dillinger-style bank robbers. Directors like Archie Mayo and Raoul Walsh emphasized circumstances, personality, and character. Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest and Roy Earle in High Sierra were Dillingers whom Bogart could represent convincingly. In both films, he was the kid from the rural or working-class communities well known to Moore, the flawed kid with certain noble qualities who is driven to crime by the society against which he now wars without hope of winning. He was a role model for stylish losers, but the message he sent was that a life of crime was better than no life at all. And when he lost, he lost big. Which carried another message: Crime Does Not Pay, but it can be a shortcut to immortality.

More than insight, the 30s movies offered vicarious adventure and a brief moral message as ignorable as the warning on a pack of cigarettes. Nor did Moore’s delinquent friends aspire to anything particularly grand. Their transition (if such occurred) from casual lawbreaking to criminal self-awareness could come as a slow awakening or a sudden one, depending on how bright the individual.

face in his lovers’ arms
she holds it little boy of it
she touches his cheeks & mouth
rubs his forehead he sez to
her what do you see there
who is it you see when you
look at me they say you
it’s you johnnie but
is it like the faces in the photos
they answer it’s better
not frozen w/cameras who’s
there he asks who’s in there
who is this guy & what’s he doing
it’s johnnie he’s the one
he’s doing dillinger
her hand across his face
when she sez it
& he thinks
does that change
the way he looks & what he is
does that make him someone else
does that unmake him …

It was about 15 years ago that Moore’s muse and bard teamed up over his discovery of John Dillinger. Here was the kind of young troublemaker that Moore once had run around with: the restless teenage son of a widowed, aging farmer living on the outskirts of the Indiana town of Mooresville (no relation), near Indianapolis. Bright, bored, ballsy; personable and capable when he chose to be; “basically a good boy” in the eyes of locals, despite his rowdiness. Fun-loving, and a first-rate baseball player on a city team who had pro potential, everyone said. A delinquent streak kept him at odds with laws that he and his friends broke mostly for the excitement of it. Then an older guy made it sound like nothing to rip off a local grocer who walked his receipts to the bank each evening for night deposit. Didn’t work, and young Dillinger, age 21 in 1924, promised leniency if he pleaded guilty, got the surprise of his life. His first excursion into violent crime netted him nine years in the joint. Moore sees that as the career move.

In the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City Dillinger accepted his outlaw identity and apprenticed himself to some experienced armed robbers. After his release in May 1933, he smuggled in the guns the others used to break out in September. Three weeks later they returned the favor, Dillinger having gotten himself arrested in the meantime while raising working capital. With everyone finally present, the gang that would soon be known as Dillinger’s began robbing banks in Indiana and all over the midwest.

Todd Moore leans into subject John Dillinger. 1988.06.18-19—Dillinger author Todd Moore and Publisher Rick Lopez at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.

I’m the man w/a gun & cock
I’m the man ready for a fast fuck or bank job
I’m ready to drive 500 miles
I’m ready to act like a tourist so I can talk to cops about myself
I’m ready to leave the country
I’m ready to come back
I’m ready to sleep forever
I’m ready to wake up
I’m ready to give you everything I have
I’m ready to take everything you have & forget I ever did it
I’m mad dog john …

Moore sees a lot of kid in Dillinger, who never made it into responsible adult society before he was locked up. The show-off quality he took into banks–he’d vault over railings, spread smocks on the floor for women tellers to lie down on.

He also was good–fast, organized, unflappable, with a boldness that psyched out the opposition, whether bank guard or president, or the cops who might give chase.

He could be hard–machine-gunned an East Chicago policeman, but only after he told the man to stop shooting at him.

He could be soft–wrote wistful letters to the father who had tried to exorcise his devilishness with sticks; and in the end, made his daddy sadly proud of a son who went wrong but at least amounted to something.

As for women, there was nothing wrong with ol’ John in that department. He never went without, and loved them all. Romanced them with walks in parks and along the Chicago beaches. They knew who he was, he warned them of the risks, worried about them, fixed their teeth, sent money to their lawyers when they faced a harboring charge. None complained.

And thanks to a strange, symbiotic relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, Dillinger made more law than he broke. He was the ammunition Hoover used to persuade Congress that the automobile had made crime an “interstate” problem requiring a national solution–in the form of new federal laws that would give muscle and teeth to his FBI.

To overcome states’-rights opposition, Hoover needed criminals of mythic proportion to demonstrate the weakness of local law enforcement. So he helped create them–the Pretty Boy Floyds and Baby Face Nelsons and Machine Gun Kellys, and John Dillinger, whose only federal crime in his career was interstate car theft. In Dillinger, he got more than he bargained for. The others were low-rent and mainly elusive; the infamous Machine Gun Kelly never fired a shot in anger, if at all. But Dillinger twice took on the G-men in spectacular gun battles and made them look so foolish, so dangerously trigger-happy, so incompetent, that Hoover came under pressure to resign. The trouble with fostering the Dillinger image was that Dillinger liked it, believed it, and ultimately became it.

The guy had “moxie,” press accounts had made clear from the start. Declaring him Public Enemy No. 1 gave him even larger shoes to fill, and there’s nothing like national recognition to inspire the kind of self-confidence that makes a prophecy self-fulfilling. His reputation alone helped him outrun, outshoot, and outwit the police.

he can see in the faces of people he’s
robbing what they’ll do
a bank guard or cop
reaching for pistol telegraphs his move
even then
even in the middle of shootouts
he’d like to reach out
touch rage
in those lips & cheeks
those eyes
of the shooters
do they know this do they see it in his
face does he blink &
tell them
passing a hand across his mouth
to wipe away a food crumb
or lipstick smear
do they know who this guy is
& what he’s after
can you tell by looking into
a man’s face
how big his cock is
can you tell by looking into
a man’s face how
big his gun is can you
read a man’s fortune from
his face … .
can you read hatred
can you read a man who’s afraid
can you read beyond the shaking behind the eyes … .
these questions
he asks
himself trying
to locate the john dillinger
who sleeps behind that johnnie
smile …

When the gang was captured by fluke in Tucson in January of 1934 and extradited, Dillinger smilingly posed for pictures, trading arms on shoulders with an Indiana prosecutor too befuddled to realize he was blowing his career. And six weeks later he did the impossible: walked out of the brand-new Crown Point jail that was called “escape proof” the way the Titanic was called unsinkable. Waved a wooden pistol (plus a real one, some believe), took two hostages (plus a machine gun, for good luck), stole the lady sheriff’s new Ford V-8, and headed for Chicago singing, “Git along little dogie, git along.” When he let his captives go, he shook hands and apologized for giving them only a couple of bucks for their trouble.

They would have paid a thousand for the experience, if not for the embarrassment.

And get this: despite two months out of circulation, Dillinger took only three days to assemble an ad hoc gang and rob a South Dakota bank of $49,000, a princely sum in 1934. You can’t help but admire a man who’s so able to get things done. And then he did the last thing the most wanted man in America should ever do: went home to Mooresville to spend a few days with family, posing outside for snapshots with his wooden pistol and Thompson submachine gun.

Dillinger also died a legend’s death. He’d once quipped to a gang member, re unreliability, “Never trust a woman or an automatic pistol.” And so it came to pass: he was betrayed by a loving girlfriend’s older woman friend, Anna Sage, the “woman in red,” and gunned down from behind by federal agents as he walked out of the Biograph theater on the sweltering night of July 22, 1934. They never gave him a chance.

Now there are even myths about the legend–that Dillinger’s penis was a whopper and is on display at the Smithsonian. That it wasn’t Dillinger who died outside the Biograph.

So it’s not like poet Moore has nothing to work with.

he stands
beneath theater marquee
staring into clark gable’s face
manhattan melodrama’s the movie
& gable w/slick down hair plays
a gangster
dillinger steps up to the box office
trades a dreambook page
a secret message
picture of his father
for one more

The two of us spent a day driving around Chicago, talking Dillinger and visiting Dillinger places. The Biograph still stands, but renovation has left only the original ticket booth and marquee. The alley will stay, I should hope, and it was a little eerie to stand on the spot where Dillinger fell, at the entrance to it, looking at an old newspaper photograph of a pool of blood surrounded by an excited crowd showing off for the camera. Papers described Lincoln Avenue as carnivallike that night, jammed by people, men dipping handkerchiefs, women the hems of their dresses, in Dillinger’s blood. The cops righteously reported that the archcriminal died with only $6.71 in his pockets, testimony to the low wages of sin. However, Anna Sage’s statement to federal agents said he was carrying around $6,000 when they’d left her apartment that night.

(If Moore and I were meant for each other, Moore also was meant for Tom Stern, marketing director of Group W Cable, which has adopted the Muscular Dystrophy Association as its annual public service project. Stern is another Dillinger groupie and this year’s fund-raising extravaganza will be “Dillinger’s Night at the Biograph,” featuring food, light booze, newsreels, Manhattan Melodrama, a Dillinger look-alike contest, antique automobiles, door prizes, and Todd Moore, who has been declared MDA’s poet laureate for the occasion.)

We toured other places, including a shabby hotel in the 3500 block of Sheffield where Anna Sage had operated before she met Dillinger. I referred to it casually as a flophouse; Moore corrected me, for he’d lived in ones like it as a kid. The family had been poor but weren’t bums was his point.

The McCready Funeral Home on Sheridan, just south of Wilson, where Dillinger’s body was taken, now houses a social-service agency for American Indians.

The house on Pulaski where Dillinger had his plastic surgery is gone, replaced by a commercial building next to a defunct gas station.

A college now occupies the spot on Wilson just west of Broadway, across from the fire station, where Polly Hamilton was working as a cafe waitress when Dillinger met her. It was her friend, a Romanian immigrant turned brothelizer, who betrayed him for $15,000 in reward money and a promise from G-man Melvin Purvis that he’d help her beat the deportation she faced for her immoral ways. Anna Sage got $5,000 and they deported her anyway. Served the bitch right. She died in Romania in 1947; no one knows what happened to Polly.

We ended up at Dillinger’s, a new bar and grill a few doors up Lincoln from the Biograph, looking for cheeseburgers. We’d missed the lunch period, and now the menu was kinda yuppie–everything smoked, mismatched, and too expensive. Made me glad John wasn’t alive to see it. And the idea of his raising money to fight a disease: that was something we decided was not out of character, for in his last days Dillinger actually entertained the idea of seeking a pardon so he could make movies and speak to American youth on the evils of crime. Look, nobody said he was realistic. That’s probably what made him such a good bank robber.

At four o’clock, to beat the traffic, Todd Moore shook hands and headed back to Belvidere, his family, his classes, and his epic poem, with 18 volumes to go.

if he woke up one morning
& he didn’t have the same face
as the one on reward posters
what wd he do
start all over again w/banks
this time he’d use a whole new technique
no leaping the old face
owned that style
he’d learn to walk thru walls
he’d learn to levitate doors & vaults
he’d learn to turn bullets
w/just glances
or if that didn’t work
he’d learn to master the art of shifting
all his vital organs before bullet impact
overcome ripping shock of slugs
tearing thru flesh
walking thru a wall of gunfire
taking half a dozen hits & moving
on w/out showing or even having pain
a little blood coming out of the wounds
but the very idea of not thinking about
being shot stops the bleeding
technique of healing yourself before
you’re hurt
that magic
or the evil eye
technique of looking of throwing murderous
looks feeling something heavy & black
lift off you off your face
& land upon the face of another
smooth slam of power
from your face
thrust of fists moving
at a great velocity from your eyes
you can actually feel that muscled
dancing behind your eyes
even when you’re smiling
even when you’re dancing
or rolling in the sheets
w/your lover
dillinger staring
into his face …

Author and Publisher take a break from the mayhem. 1988.06.18-19—Dillinger author Todd Moore and Publisher Rick Lopez at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago.

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tony moffeit | scorching the darkness: the channeling of dillinger


read todd moore’s latest dillinger poem, meditations on a machine gun, just written and so new that it has not even been submitted, and i realize why he reaches another level of intensity, another level of obsessive fever, another level of scorching fire. it is because he channels dillinger better than anyone else. his is a vision, a passion, an innovation of the spirit of john dillinger. he is a tremendous will to power and at the same time a receptacle, a receiver of the spirit of john dillinger. both tremendous will and tremendous effortlessness, both outlaw and ghost, dillinger is channeled in the only way that dillinger must be channeled: with fire and darkness, with poison and innovation, with the past and the future, with the pure language of machine gun words. and it is the machine gun that is the object of meditations in this latest poem, this latest todd moore masterpiece:

coming off
she was
both her
hands just
the thomp
son her
right hand
was abt
six inches
the barrel
her left
hand abt
six inches
above the
back part
of the gun
where the
stock wd
she looked
over at
both dill
inger &
billie &
sd now
pay very
tion she
ting to
her hands
along an
first to
ward each
then back
she re
this mo
half a
times slow
ly so
very slow
at the
very same
the sparks
ning to
turn into
a thick
blue light
that ex
from her
to the
metal sur
face of
the ma
gun dill
inger cd
hear the
sound of
that small
were jum
ping out
of the blue
the ma
chine gun
to lift
all by it
self in
to the air
at first
maybe only
an inch
of space
it from
the scarred
of the
table then
an inch
& a half
two inches
three inches
drew her
by now
all she
needed to
do was
point at
the machine
gun w/
her right
index finger
to make
it float

this is pure outlaw. this writing is pure outlaw. because it is about something else. it’s about changing consciousness of things atomically. seeing it on the page is to experience relativity, to garner the secrets of mass, energy, and motion. it is better than a movie. it is better than a rock song. because it immediately and precisely changes the state of consciousness. not only is the machine gun levitated, but the reader is levitated.

in this poem the action has become subatomic and quantum. the story has become archetypal because it is brought inside, todd moore has made it his own:

half a
we are
the ones
took a
the last
of the
out of
it out
of the
me abt
his sur
for a
he was
if we
out in
the open
ling like
they al
know we
turned to
drop our
a good
i sd
what he
then the
on those
got even
they were
it al
were ar
who wd
bulk of
out at
a guy
a big
the thing
he yelled
at me
i lan
a big
when the
ter som
brero &
near him
over the
the ones
who sur
were either
or craw
the two
who were
back w/
the horses
rode off
we ne
saw them

now here is something dangerous. where terror meets danger meets chaos in the purest form. meditations on a machine gun is about another language, another voice, another consciousness. it’s about the velocity of language, the velocity of the condensed line, the velocity of the speed of light, the velocity of channeling john dillinger. it is also about the tremendous stories, myths, and archetypes of the machine gun. this poem explodes on the page. tony moffeit 8/18/09

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lawrence welsh | todd moore’s riddle: obscurity, redemption and fame

Todd Moore & Lawrence Welsh

In the annals of American poetry, Todd Moore is an anomaly. The author of more than 100 books and chapbooks during the past 40 years, he’s both known and unknown at the same time. In fact, Moore is regarded as a legend in the underground and renegade press circles, yet no university or mainstream press has touched his work, except for a few well-regarded anthologies.

What’s needed now, then, is a selected poetry by a major press with wide distribution. There’s no poet in America more deserving. Until that time, however, we’re lucky enough to get a new, large chunk of his work with The Riddle of the Wooden Gun, which Lummox Press published earlier this year.

As a new installment in his 35-year-old Dillinger epic, Riddle is a first-rate romp into the heart and soul of the American dream. It’s a dream that’s so close to actuality that it’s eerie in its portentousness and its real-life dramas. But the wooden gun, which sometimes exists in reality, is also a ghost or spirit that no one can fully pin down.

For the gun shows up, disappears and then appears in another’s memory or world. In a sense, then, it seems like we’ve all owned a wooden gun or have possessed one in our life. It can take shape as a dead relative, a lousy job, a gone girlfriend, a dead lover, a drinking or dope curse, a lemon for a car. In Moore’s world, they’re all metaphors for wooden guns:

“wish i knew
became of
the wooden
gun my
daddy sd
it got burnt
in a house
fire down
in kentucky…”

The gun also inhabits and serves as a symbol for the spirit world – both the dark and light realms — and can switch in another’s memory or fantasy into a talisman or trickster as important as an ancient crucifix or medicine pipe. In this sense, the reader sees how New Mexico, the land of enchantment, has affected Moore and slipped under his skin during his life there the past 15 years. For no other state in America is as infused with ancient Christianity, Native American blood and new age alchemy as New Mexico:

“it was the
gun that
had every
one edging
back toward
the wall
some kind
of black
energy was
off the wooden
gun &
just hanging
in the

At the same time, the wooden gun also inhabits the world of light, healing and hope, almost like a miracle worker, prophet or saint:

“she sd
it was
good luck
to touch
& wd
heal any
or wounds
& she
to have it…”

But the real heart of this first-rate book is the knowledge that there’s no end to the wooden gun, that it remains with the reader as an endless quest for what? Salvation, damnation, protection, a joke, a ruse, a shield? Perhaps none or all of the above. In essence, that’s the riddle.

In the end, it’s all impossible to nail down, like a meditation session or prayer cycle; impossible to fully quantify but still essential for living, like air or water or bone — or not important at all. It’s up to the reader to decide. As one anonymous old timer tells us:

“wooden gun
stories i
got a million
of em
which one
wd you like
to hear…”

For Todd Moore, the answer is, of course, every single one of them, mainly because Moore is an obsessed writer who has taken obsession into a life-changing journey. And the obsession is not only with Dillinger here and a wooden gun, but the relentless search and dedication to develop a one-of-a kind, bullet-proof voice in American poetry and letters. This obsession, which he has lived for 40 years, has significantly paid off. The Riddle of the Wooden Gun is a masterpiece.

Now what our nation needs is a 500 page selected poems of Todd Moore. Until that time, it’s the reader’s job to seek him out, to uncover the richness and to discover that Moore, along with the wooden gun, “are the / stuff that / dreams are / made of.”


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bill nevin | todd moore, cinematic poet on the outlaw’s trail

Todd Moore had just returned home to Albuquerque from a book-signing and reading tour of southern California, and he was still unwinding from the road. At age 71, he confides, such travels can be exhilarating but strenuous. He was glad to be relaxing on a warm July afternoon in the way he enjoys most, with free-ranging conversation laced with anecdotal recollections and tactful name-checks.

“It was pretty surprising, what you might call a sign,” says Moore, chatting over a Reuben sandwich with fried pickles in O’Niell’s Pub. “I was at the Flying Star on Juan Tabo about a year ago, enjoying the view of the Sandias and trying to get my writing started for the day, but I was sort of blocked, not sure where to begin.

“Then I recognized the well-dressed man sitting at a table just across from me with another man in a suit, sipping coffee and signing a stack of papers. I’d seen his picture in a movie magazine, when the film of ‘No Country for Old Men’ came out. It was Cormac McCarthy–I’m sure of it!”

The famously reclusive New Mexico novelist could well have been lunching at Flying Star, perhaps signing movie contract papers for the forthcoming film version of his best seller “The Road,’ Moore and I agreed.

“I didn’t go over and speak to him, much as I wanted to,” confided Moore, who showed me his dog-eared copy of McCarthy’s Wild West fiction classic ‘Blood Meridian.’ “Because it’s well known he hates for that to happen. I just looked down at my notepad and started writing. And writing . . . and writing!”

Holding up a copy of his own recently published book length poem, “The Riddle of the Wooden Gun” (Lummox Press, 2009), Moore smiled and declared, “I finished this latest book right then and there. I think Cormac McCarthy became my muse that day, and he doesn’t even know it!”

Whether speculative tall tale, or factual report, this famous-author-sighting-and-inspirational-anecdote makes for a good story. That’s how Todd Moore sees the world– as myth and legend–and that’s how he describes it in his concisely worded but often epic-length poem-cycles. And it is no accident that Moore’s favorite living writer is Cormac McCarthy, a novelist famed for his cinematic style, careful use of language, painstaking historical research and violent subject matter.

That also would be a fitting description of Todd Moore’s own literary output. Though he’s a retired school teacher, Moore’s literary persona is neither socially conformist nor pedantic. It could be described as decidedly edgy, in Moore’s own words, “outlaw”; the language choices are often salty enough to fit a gunslinger or an old tar. Both write in cinematic styles, and both carry on the time-honored American outlaw myth tradition associated with classic tough-guy filmmakers like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and with all of those Humphrey Bogart noir classics.

Todd Moore’s biography and family history, as told to me that day and detailed in his many published interviews and on his own Saint Vitus Press Web site and blog, contains not a small dose of myth-worthy facts and tempting speculations.

“My great grandfather walked around with a pair of Navy Colts on his hips and a tomahawk in his belt,” Moore said, explaining that the weapons were necessary to defend against angry relatives and former neighbors whose homes Moore’s great granddad may have burned down while serving with Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas and the Federal 7th Cavalry. “He was a dangerous man,” and one whose loyalties were at best “practical.”

Moore’s own childhood, in urban Illinois settings near Chicago, was lived in dangerous circumstances.

“My dad knew Al Capone,” Moore recalls. “And he was an alcoholic himself, pretty rough with his kids. We lived in skid row slums most of the time. Dad was a great storyteller but he never got around to writing them down.”

Though Moore’s dad may not have recorded his own stories, Moore, who went to college on a teacher’s scholarship and began writing early, carries on the family story tradition, lacing his recollections with detailed digressions about the notorious figures of Depression- era Midwest America.

“Capone invented the soup kitchen before the government did anything, and he kept right on feeding people into the Depression years,” he said.

It is that romantic take on the admittedly larcenous and often murderous criminal celebrities of bygone days that gives Moore’s narrative poems and personal outlook their sentimental flavor, for all his admiration of hardboiled writers like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. Early ‘30s bank robber John Dillinger, the subject of several of Todd Moore’s books of verse, including “Dillinger” and “The Riddle of the Wooden Gun,” had a soft heart for the working poor and women and a reluctance to kill anyone, even police, at least according to Moore.

“It’s only documented that he personally killed one person, a cop who was firing at him, and even that was clearly self-defense. Dillinger felt sorry about the killing afterwards, and said so,” according to Moore.

This conscientious, affectionate yet machine-gun toting legendary John Dillinger is very much like the one portrayed by Johnny Depp in the recently released movie “Public Enemies.” Depp’s Dillinger refuses to steal the pocket money of bank clerks, only raiding the vaults, and he shoots but a withering glance at one of the FBI agents firing lethal bullets at him outside Chicago’s Biograph movie house.

“He could have shot that cop,” says Moore, clearly relishing the memory of Depp’s characterization. “But he only gave him the evil eye – that’s all that was needed.”

Moore is unreserved in his praise of the film; he’s already seen it three times and plans to go again soon.

“It’s one of those movies with so many details in the background and in the quickly-flashed scenes that you just want to go through it again and again.”

Moore notes that the almost subliminally planted references to both Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and to Ethiopian anti-Italian resistance leader Emperor Haile Selassie I add to the film’s historical context and make it really fun to watch.

My lunch interview with Todd Moore stretched out into an all-afternoon yarn-spin and wide-ranging literary chat. Moore had much to say on one of his favored topics: the quality dampening conformity of academia and its grant-favored or tenured poets. And he eloquently outlined his own concept of the counter-academic literary alternative offered by self-styled “outlaw poets” such as himself, Santa Fe’s poet/songwriter Kell Robertson and, according to Moore, even the “poetic outlaw” novelist Cormac McCarthy, a famously anti-academic author himself.

The afternoon sped by very fast, and we had to part to be home in time for dinner. I would love to report every tale told and every opinion offered by Todd Moore, but I think leaving my readers to go to Moore’s poems and, perhaps, to attend one of his fabled readings, is a better plan. For more information, visit or –Bill Nevins is a contributing editor to albuquerqueARTS.

Editor Note: All Todd Moore images by Roy Manzanares.

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john dorsey & s.a. griffin | the dead zone trilogy

I’ve heard

it said that the body is mainly comprised of water. I’d add to that hopes, dreams, tears, and a masculine and feminine energy so ingrained that it’s what we might refer to as spirit, whisper as a constitution of muted American daydreams, silenced by the light of morning in a corporate reality, all this is what you’ll find in the writing of Todd Moore.

Make no mistake about it, Todd Moore is the real outlaw poet of our day, his pen dipped in gunslinger magic; happy big time Valentine’s baby. First time I ever laid my eyes on Todd’s Dillinger material, it ripped my lid off – still does, that’s why he got his very own section in the Outlaw Bible, his shit killed. I had never experienced anything like it before or since. After reading “Dead Zone” on the heels of several other pieces of this epic, it is apparent that Todd was born under the sign of a smoking gun and has latched on to some streaking star from a yet to be discovered universe.

For readers not familiar with Moore’s work, for years he has received the poem, the novel, the word, through the lips of 1930’s bank robber/desperado John Dillinger. Searching for his face on the silver screen, through sex, love, death, fear, fame, wisdom. . .by becoming your mother, your brother, your sister, and turning all of them into myth, a bloodbath, a tribal love-dance, by parting the Red Sea boiling over inside and out of our culture, inside the collective human mind, bleeding in our dark places unburied by the shadow of experience.

Channeling Dillinger since 1973, Moore’s outlaw opus has generated somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million words. His dreamlike fantasy becomes machine guns in the hands of automatic killer language, a flickering black & white noir shot full of good old American myth. Todd shoots the characters onto the pages with the story, as Dillinger supplies the blood. & just like one of the bank robber’s blondes that sheds her skin and sticks her tits out like six shooters in the darkened movie theatre, Dillinger won’t let the reader go.

Todd has been heralded by some, ignored by too many and yet to be experienced by the rest. His Dillinger fits right into the western canon of poetic legend established by the late, great original master gunslinger of verse, Ed Dorn. Todd Moore’s Homeric outlaw odyssey is that of our present cultural flux and collective nightmare translated from the not so distant Tommy gun G Man past into the phallic explosion of a corporate gangsta pop present, blood & sand baby, are ya with me dawg?

The words inside of “The Dead Zone Trilogy” are blessings, keepsakes, chapters of saga greater than Mario Puzo’s most violent wet dream. Is Moore writing a poem, or simply channeling the oral tradition of a dead language soaked in blood and cum stained love-letters to a greater truth, the pulse of the mind, a nation made internal?

Hell, I can’t tell. I don’t care really. I don’t know what’s real, “or is that johnnie?”, that’s a good question. This book rattled my cage. Lawrence’s flesh became mine, became the other, whispered the meaning of bullets to monsters, in a pre-Dorothy era outlaw America that was never Kansas, that will leave your head spinning, dizzy, afraid to go outside, afraid to be locked inside, afraid of the hitting, silenced by strong words to find the meaning of our song, we all share it. Pick up this book anywhere you can find it, come sing for your dreams, before their motives are flooded in darkness, Todd will take a bullet for you, in fact he’s been taking them for yrs, his name, your name, our name America . . . Dillinger!

John Dorsey & S.A. Griffin

THE DEAD ZONE TRILOGY by Todd Moore, St. Vitus Dance Press, 2005.

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tony moffeit | shaking the bones


is a review by Tony Moffeit on The Riddle of the Wooden Gun, by Todd Moore. 2009. 144 pp; Pa; The Lummox Press, POB 5301, San Pedro, CA 90733. $15.00.

i hold

todd moore’s new book in my hand and it is like holding a weapon. the words on the page are laid out like machine gun fire. in a world that is falling apart, the only thing that makes sense is your own kind of inner war, the inner war of the outlaw. in a recent essay of his, “The Nightmare of Poetry Is War,” todd moore writes:

“There are times when simple human emotions well up so powerfully and darkly inside the blood, you are left with just two choices. Write HOWL or ARIEL or CROW or DILLINGER or load a machine gun. Because nothing else will do. Nothing else will satisfy. Nothing else will oppose the violence in a violent world like a poem as dangerous as a Molotov cocktail with a short rag fuse that is lit and burning. Ultimately, writing poetry is nothing less than an act of total war. Only this is a war waged in and through the human psyche. This is a war fought in the ditches and the trenches of your worst nightmares. This is really what writing poetry is all about. This is what really defines Outlaw Poetry.”

in a revolution that is an anti-revolution, todd moore continually defines the battleground, the warriors, and the weapons. the weapon in this book is the wooden gun, the battleground is the riddle, and the warrior is dillinger. this book is dreamwave and death soup. it is also about a childhood of wooden guns and the kid as hero. it’s about the wooden gun as archetype and the poem as movie, the poem as novel, the poem as dialogue. it’s about the relentlessness of the outlaw spirit, the relentless spirit of todd moore.

holding todd moore’s book in your hand as a weapon, a machine gun, an archetype for firing bullet words, you are caught in the hurricane of the renegade. to read this book is to burn with the author, to blaze with the language. and war is not enough. the warrior must be on fire. that’s what writing poetry is all about. to be a writer, to be a reader of the miraculous realm of poetry and death and love and poetry and death. the warrior must cover the whole spectrum.

this book is a weapon against hard times. not since nietzsche has there been an outlaw statement of the pure will to power. when all external measures are unsatisfactory, the outlaw poet has nowhere to turn. “where do you get your power?” they ask. and the outlaw answers, “from myself.”

he was
holding a
in one hand
& a wooden
gun in the
but for
some strange
was afraid
of the
it was the
gun that
had every
one edging
back toward
the wall
some kind
of black
energy was
off the
gun &
just hanging
in the
air like
strands of
very dark
& because
wanted to
get close
enough to
give dil
linger the
thick stacks
of bills
began to
pour out
of the
bank drawers
all by
& once
they dis
covered where
dillinger was
they headed
toward him
& his
gunny sacks
in thickets
of ravenous

the riddle of the wooden gun is a riddle of a different kind of reality. not surreality, because riddle it is too concrete, too nietzschean. not surreality, because the mysticism of riddle is rooted not in oneness, but in separateness. not surreality, because the language of riddle is rooted in the violence of extreme individuality. it is a new reality. it is the ghost reality of outlaw.

outlaw is about two extremes: blood and ghost. outlaw is about the merging of the two extremes: blood and ghost. outlaw is about the visceral and the energy that surrounds the visceral. it is a mysticism of the body. it is the singing of the body electric of walt whitman. it is the yea-saying of nietzsche and neal cassady. it is the revitalization found in henry miller.

pretty soon
he sez
i am the
wooden gun
& i am
the real
gun when
you got me
you got

blood and ghost. the spirit of the wooden gun leaves you with scars, wounds, and the bullet holes of language. it is a wild outlaw ride made even more intense by the compacted words, the thin line beating syllables into a pulse, a pound. this poem is an endless sentence with no breaks. it takes you to a different level of consciousness.

the riddle of the wooden gun works on many different levels. what is reality? what is illusion? did dillinger use the wooden gun in his jailbreak from crown point? and as compacted and intense the lines, the poem is about space, the wide open space that the outlaw holds necessary. and so the poem works as a landscape, a frontier.

you cd use
almost anything
as a wooden
gun but most
of us
just broke
sticks off
tree limbs
but it had
to be a stick
that had
another one
growing out
of it so that
it looked
as tho is had
a handle
& when
you got
called home
& you
were still
holding onto
the wooden
you broke
it in two
that meant
you won it
what was
it you won
dillinger asked
the night
belongs to you

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david mclean | dillinger and the riddle of the wooden gun


is a nation of fierce and unforgiving images. Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry pointing a 44 magnum at a outlaw he is about to kill. John Wayne as the Ringo Kid spinning a Winchester 30-30 in STAGECOACH. Charles Bronson standing sideways while he points a pistol in a movie still for DEATH WISH. Kevin Bacon aiming his gunfinger at Sean Penn in MYSTIC RIVER. A blood smeared Warren Oates leaning into that lethal Browning fifty caliber machine gun in THE WILD BUNCH. The list is practically endless. Simply because the capacity for violence in America is also endless. Endless, hypnotic, and perversely and enormously attractive.

I’m staring at the iconic photograph of John Dillinger standing on the lawn outside his father’s house in Mooresville, Indiana. He’s holding a Thompson sub machine gun in one hand and that infamous wooden gun in the other and he’s got the biggest smile in the universe plastered across his face. I don’t know how many times I’ve studied this image but right now the more that I look at it the more I realize it isn’t just an offhand snapshot that Billie Frechette took as a whim. This image is really so much more than that. On the surface, it’s Dillinger giving the FBI the biggest finger in the world, simply because the photograph was taken shortly after he had escaped from Crown Point. Below the surface, if you know anything about Dillinger you know that the machine gun he actually carried on bank raids was streamlined. It had no wooden stock and Dillinger preferred using clips because they were lightweight. In the snapshot, this Thompson has a fifty slug drum attached beneath the barrel which would make the weapon much heavier, so you realize that this is a staged shot, meant for newspaper reporters, law officers, and the voyeur public at large. Posing for this photograph was a simple act of provocation, meant to invoke both wonder and anger from practically everyone. Or, to put it into contemporary terms, Dillinger is trying to push all the hot buttons.

However, it’s the wooden gun in his other hand that, over the years, has created the most interest. This is supposedly the piece that Dillinger used in his jail break from Crown Point. But, did he? This question, among several others, is what has made Dillinger’s wooden gun so irresistibly interesting, so undeniably desirable.

Another question, maybe more to the point of the whole Crown Point episode, is why would a man like Dillinger take such an unbelievable risk with nothing more than a wooden gun when that jail was so heavily guarded? The chances for being shot were just as good if he had been armed with a real weapon. While asking myself this question, I am for some strange reason reminded of the Russian writer Isaac Babel who rode with the Cossacks during the Russian/Polish War of 1920. Babel was a war correspondent who had somehow had insinuated himself into the thick of the action and was carrying a pistol at the time, but the pistol was not loaded. Now, why did he do that? Why would he put himself at such insane risk? Was he tempting the gods? Nobody really knows the answer to either question, and because this is the case, these actions become mysterious, enigmatic, and ultimately dangerous little psychic riddles.

In fact, that photograph of Dillinger holding the wooden gun is in itself a riddle. Superficially, it is evidence of Dillinger’s joke on J. Edgar Hoover and law enforcement in general, but in a larger sense it may also be his joke on America and in an even larger sense his own personal cosmic joke on the universe, even oblivion itself. We will never actually know. But, that won’t keep any of us from fantasizing.

What we do know is that the riddle of the wooden gun is very much a mystery that hints at darker, maybe demonic things, among them the pure sense of apocalypse in America. Naturally, we could say that the wooden gun is really nothing more than a wooden gun, maybe even a toy and leave it at that. We could also be just as superficial regarding Poe’s Raven, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter A, Ahab’s white whale and all of its subsequent dreamings and meanings, Huck Finn’s raft, Hart Crane’s Bridge, the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in THE GREAT GATSBY, and Faulkner’s mythic bear. But, we won’t, or rather, I won’t because these are the kinds of images, these are the haunted emblems, these are the riddles, the limitless possibilities and the dark impossibilities that both obscure and define America.

I’ve been haunted for a long time by both the story and the mythology of Dillinger’s wooden gun. Twenty years ago when I visited the Dillinger Museum in Nashville, Indiana, I saw the wooden gun displayed along with other personal effects in a glass case. Or, lets say I saw one of several extent variations of it. Since that time, I couldn’t get the image of that gun or its impact on me out of my mind. In fact, even before that I used the idea of it briefly in The Name Is Dillinger. But, I was never completely satisfied that with that version. It works fine for the section but somehow it lacks finish, fleshing out, expanded imagination, psychic daring.

At any rate, that wooden gun image boiled around inside my subconscious for at least thirty years. From time to time I might have mentioned it in a few other Dillinger sections as well, but I never really dealt with it the way that it needed to be explored. Then, one day last year suddenly and almost by surprise I began to think about the wooden gun again. Earlier in the day I’d been imagining Dillinger holding the wooden gun in that photograph and I just let that image become a kind of dream movie that looped itself around in my mind. This was going on while I was sitting in a local restaurant up near the mountains called The Flying Star. In fact, I was writing down fragmented lines on the back of a receipt from a bookstore when I glanced up and looked out on the restaurant’s patio. It was April first, ironically April Fool’s Day and the weather was deliciously warm. It was the kind of day when you knew you could literally do anything.

I was working on an ice tea and a huge chocolate chip cookie and the way the sun was slashing in at very bright yellow angles and the way the wind was blowing lightly and the way the mountains looked thrusting far up into the blue on blue sky made it all feel as though this was the first day of the earth. Then I glanced around at the people sitting out on the patio the way you usually do when you are casually eating and thinking and enjoying the feeling of just being alive and that’s when I saw Cormac McCarthy. He was sitting at a table near the wall of windows with a friend, talking, gesturing, signing a large bundle of papers one at a time. At first, I doubted that this was Cormac McCarthy but the more that I stared at this man the more I realized I was right.

I knew that McCarthy was not open to strangers and I also realized that there was something magical about this moment and approaching him for any reason would have almost certainly destroyed it. I am a great believer in signs and portents and I just wanted to enjoy what was happening because something I didn’t quite understand was taking place. Call it a kind of spontaneous duende or just simply hooking up with the power circuit of the universe; it doesn’t matter but a poem was really starting to race through me and I realized that this was not going to be a short poem. And, it wasn’t going to be something that would reasonably fit into a quick twenty pages either. This definitely was going to be longer than that. Much longer and then I was scrounging my pockets for scraps of paper to write on.

Every once in awhile I’d glance up and see McCarthy still sitting there, still as alive, still as animated as ever. I’d found a few blank pieces of paper in Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP, a novel I’d gone back to simply because I love Chandler’s screwball narrative. I like to carry extra sheets of paper in a book I might have with me when I go out just in case I get a poem I wasn’t looking for. After nearly an hour I’d filled up all of that paper with random lines of pseudo historical and mythological references to Dillinger’s wooden gun and when I looked up again, Cormac McCarthy and his friend were gone.

The fact that he was gone made me feel as though I’d lost a secret ingredient of the poem, but by now I was so far into writing The Riddle of the Wooden Gun it really didn’t matter. I felt hugely and immensely propelled into something that for me was as important as writing The Name Is Dillinger, The Sign Of The Gun, Relentless, and The Corpse Is Dreaming. The moment I arrived home I sat down at the computer and just stayed there writing for the next two hours. The following day I did the same thing. And the next and the next and the next and the next. I worked on The Riddle of the Wooden Gun beginning with that first day in April and finally put the finishing touches on it sometime during the eighteenth, though I think I really only worked on it for fourteen days. I needed to take those few extra days to see how it would sound. It had to somehow resonate inside me. It had to light me up. I had to feel the poem fly through me like some kind of manic crow.

As far as the poem is concerned, it runs to almost five thousand lines. At least as long as Crane’s THE BRIDGE, probably longer than Lorca’s POET IN NEW YORK, nearly as long as Dorn’s GUNSLINGER. And, while Riddle is an integral part of DILLINGER overall, it could easily stand on its own as a finished piece of work. And, I believe it could easily be compared to all of these poems as well.

However, while Riddle will certainly hold its own as a long poem, what it does beyond all that is it works as one of the central keys to understanding DILLINGER. The poem, like that iconic photograph of Dillinger holding the wooden gun, and the actual wooden gun itself, is a kind of riddle much the same as the scarlet letter, the white whale, or Faulkner’s bear. None of these riddles will ever be solved to anyone’s particular satisfaction, but it isn’t really a solution that anyone is after. It’s the rich cluster of possibilities that these kinds of riddles offer. These are the riddle clusters that we all dream from. In fact, these kinds of riddles arise from a national core of dreaming, the place where we all get our faces from. And, I remain alive in the mystery of

Dillinger and the riddle of the wooden gun.


never told
nobody this
but i always
took the
toy wooden
gun my
daddy whittled
out of hick
ory for me
it was a nice
shiny well
made little
pistol that
fit right into
the palm
of my hand
& if you
are thinking
as i know
you are
what good
is a wooden
gun against
a machine
gun then
you know
why my
heart is
going so
fast it feels
like it
will jump
right up
my throat
but some
thing in
side me
way back
in the dream
ing place
is telling
me that
the wooden
gun will
keep me

Book review by David McLean

This book by poet Todd Moore is a single long poem that presents over its whole length a story of Dillinger and other outlaws and their wooden guns. Alongside the real guns we hear of the replicas, clumsily or skilfully made toys that they possessed, that were used as props in robberies, that were accorded symbolic weight, that developed from the childhood interest in toys, that carried the kids violent icon, his weapon, over into the man’s toy

dillinger never
told his
old man
abt the wooden
gun he
found at
the movies
he sneaked
it into
the house
& hid it
under the
bed & when
he had to
turn the lights
off & go
to sleep he’d
put the wooden
gun under
his pillow
dillinger won
dered if a
wooden gun
ever gave
off any light

(p 62)

The disjointed effect of the abbreviated lines here works well, though it does not always work well in poems, the effect is more difficult to achieve than it looks and is not just a question of having a finger itchy for the trigger Enter on the keyboard. Here however it is done consummately, the words often broken in the middle as in “won | dered” above to match the patterns of syntactic dislocation that are appropriate to the poem, the story. It’s also an effective technique in relaying to us the strangeness of the spoken word, later we can feel in it a man talking

& i had him
make me
a little 25
auto swee
test little
wood pis
tol you
ever laid
eyes on

(p 101-2)

The gun grows to a riddle, a mystery, a magical symbol, a talisman

.. billie she
sd if i give
you a woo
den gun
will you
promise to
give me
a real one
was crad
ling the
wooden gun
in her arms
like it
was a baby
rocking it
to nighty
night what
happens when
you get the
wooden gun’s
shadow on
you makes
you feel so
goddam lost
dillinger isn’t
sure this is
the beginning
of a fairy tale
a riddle or
a question
so he just
quiet while
billie sd
pour a little
cat’s blood
on it &
she’ll peel
right off
like a
boiled po
tato skin

(p 72-3)

The shadow of the gun is maybe the shadow of the violent imagery that makes a boy a “man,” the socially conditioned iconography of violence that subjects the children who grow to be the old kind of outlaw as surely as it subjects monks to their novitiates, or maybe it’s something less glibly definable, the real power of weapons over us as we touch them, the destructive potential that we are, especially when we stroke weapons and wonder if we might be gods.

The wooden gun is what frightens people, the children’s toy, the artifact that represents and, as mimetic, pretends to be the real thing. The reality becomes indifferent. Like today, what is disgusting is violent sexual abuse, not films about violent sexual abuse, they’re probably just a vent.

he was
holding a
in one hand
& a wooden
gun in the
but for
some strange
was afraid
of the
it was the
gun that
had every
one edging
back toward
the wall
some kind
of black
energy was
off the
gun &
just hanging
in the
air like
strands of
very dark

(p 75)

I may be reading into this more than the writer intends, or something different, maybe less, but the gun itself, the oily metal thing that tends to get dirty and kills if you ask it to, is only a signified, the forgotten object at the end of a chain of signifiers that includes kid’s toys and the elaborate toy guns with which Al Capone rewarded his favorite pistoleros. The real gun might as well not exist any more, the killers can always find something else to kill with, but the glory of the child’s toy is what puts the smoking gun in the man’s latter-day hand.

In the longer passage I shall take the liberty of quoting here, Moore related the known phenomenon of confabulation of our own memory of what should be closest to us to the newspapers habit of bullshitting

took out all
the bad
words in
the news
papers but
in his dreams
recalls more
than he sd
or less
he wasn’t
sure which
but that
was ok
nobody wd
get any
of it right
the part
abt the
wooden gun
first theory
he had a
real 45 auto
& a wooden
gun too
second theory
he had just
the 45 auto
& on his
journey up
the corridor
of cells an
inmate slipped
him a wooden
gun he’d just
got done
third theory
he grabbed a
wooden gun
off a guard’s
desk on the
way out
& he used
that instead
of the real
45 auto just
to see how
far it wd
get him
g. russell
in his book
edited by
william hel
mer suggests
that herbert
attorney smug
gled a wooden
gun to young
blood & he
slipped the
piece to dill
or maybe it
really was
a 45 auto

(p 83-4

We are all in the same boat as the bandido, but what the fuck, nobody else remembers exactly how their lives went down. It’s a hard thought for somebody missing his childhood golden sunsets and how maybe some bird used to sound. But you’re probably making most of it up, picking pieces from films, lines from songs, whatever. Our histories are edited by Mr Blatant Need-For-Reassurance and he’s a crummy and corrupt hack.

As this poem progresses the wooden gun becomes an overdetermined symbol, it acquires the ability to prophesy and serve as a sign for almost everything seen through the darkening lenses of American outlaw mythology

a wooden
gun shot all
to pieces
a wooden
gun thrown
down a
well nightmare
water &
the black
taste of dream
a wooden
gun out of
a fence slat
tom sawyer
painting it
the color
of a dead
man’s face
annie oakley
the barrel
off a wooden
gun that
frank butler
by the grip
between his

( p 133-4)

Dashiel Hammett is allowed to conclude the story, talking to Hemingway of the riddle of the wooden gun at a cocktail party, the mystery is not one susceptible of explanation,

hammett re
turned hem
ingway’s grin
& sd it’s
not that kind
of mystery
then what is
it hemingway
sd growing
paused again
stared into
his bourbon
& sd the
stuff that
dreams are
made of

(p 142)

Ultimately, it was a gun symbol, a token of pseudo-manhood, the wood that boys hold in their hands before they have real hard cocks to hold, what might become a baby in a little girl’s womb, it’s iconography and mythology, and it doesn’t matter if it’s real, or what really happened, to is or to us as we remember things, it’s the futility of recollecting any history; it’s a good story and it symbolizes something and imparts some meaning. It imparts, like any well written poem, the meaning the reader finds in it. It would be nicer if Moore agrees with anything I said, but I think ultimately the point is that it doesn’t matter. The wooden gun might have been a soap gun, people disagree. I like to think that Dillinger didn’t die and actually had an extraordinarily large penis, but in some sense the Dillinger of whom we speak nowadays is as real as Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. That’s very real, but he’s only tenuously connected to the body of young man who almost certainly died that day, just over thirty years old, whether or not he was hung like a horse.

As Moore himself says in an essay available here

“However, while Riddle will certainly hold its own as a long poem, what it does beyond all that is it works as one of the central keys to understanding DILLINGER. The poem, like that iconic photograph of Dillinger holding the wooden gun, and the actual wooden gun itself, is a kind of riddle much the same as the scarlet letter, the white whale, or Faulkner’s bear. None of these riddles will ever be solved to anyone’s particular satisfaction, but it isn’t really a solution that anyone is after. It’s the rich cluster of possibilities that these kinds of riddles offer. These are the riddle clusters that we all dream from. In fact, these kinds of riddles arise from a national core of dreaming, the place where we all get our faces from. And, I remain alive in the mystery of Dillinger and the riddle of the wooden gun.”

The book is a great poem, a good story, an entry in the epic outlaw Dillinger mythology and also a work about where dreams and myth and reality and the poetizing magic of the darkness in us all coincide. As such i really think you shall buy it, I hold a token gun of soap at your backs to make you do so here, as Dillinger launders his story again, robbers usually ask for more than fifteen dollars I believe at Lummox Press.

Todd Moore | Photo: Roy Manzanares


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tony moffeit | a man on fire


at 71 years old, there is no light burning brighter, shining stronger than this poet, essayist, novelist, howler in the midnight blue. he is a shouter of the individual, the outcast, the renegade, the desperado, the down and out blues monger, the assassin on your tv screen, the peckinpah killers, the alley rat characters of his youth, the gone outsider dancing hobo, the scratched celluloid of a b movie, the dark theater of his mind. he is the leader of a revolution that is about anti-revolution, a revolution that is about turning your back on everything, a revolution that is about honing yourself into a creative fire that burns down everything, a revolution that has the kiss of death firmly planted in the center of mad love, a revolution that is about the abandon of marginality, a revolution that is about finding your own shadow that is following you, a revolution that is about reducing everything into the immortality of the moment, a revolution that is about becoming yourself, a revolution that is about attacking relentlessly the attackers, a revolution that says fuck you very much i’m going my own way, a revolution that reduces everything to a single word: outlaw. to live inside the poem is to live outside the law. to live inside the poem is to be an outlaw.

the way
i write
is strictly
fuck you
no cap
ital letters
no punc
the words
or all
up like bro
ken glass
pop cans
& used
the ameri
can sen
tence is
either a
or a
& i’m
to watch
it explode

todd moore is his own best example of an outlaw. for he is ablaze. and he is shooting shock waves of bullet words. he is a man on fire. and in his flame, he is touching all the great outlaws of the past. he is honing in on the stutter and the scream of james dean. one of the greatest outlaw events is the death of james dean. for it takes one back to ancient archetypes, redefining them, reinventing them. the hero as lone wolf. the hero as artist. the hero in his loneness seeking and experiencing mad love. the transformation of the hero through his search, his journey. the obsession with speed. the obsession with transmutation through speed. the endless appetite for passionate experience. the endless appetite for going beyond oneself. at the very peak of his creative gifts: death, like the other side of the coin of a kiss. at the very peak of his creative gifts: death, giving immortality to youth, to the new, to the velocity of his vision, death giving immortality to the fact that if you are not ablaze you are dead. todd moore is the pure blaze of outlaw.

james dean reinvented everything. he reinvented his speech through his own unique dialect, full of mutters and stutters and screams and primal yells. he reinvented his speech through the silence of gestures. better than a silent movie star, james dean’s primal gestures, shoulders ashrug, shoulders hunched, bleak syllables biting, he walked the walk and he talked the talk, a neanderthal language that was utterly sophisticated. a primitive. a barbarian at the gate. in a language, a body of gestures of reinvented sophistication. his hair, his gait, his speed, his endless exploration of everything from bullfighting to racecar driving. there was not enough time in the day. there was not enough time in the night. and so he went up in the flames of his porsche. and out of the ashes of that california evening a new archetype, an old archetype, a new archetype with ancient reverberations: outlaw. saying, of course: if you cannot reinvent yourself, you are dead.

no one
how dark
the wolf
is until
the night
to move

to live inside the poem is to live outside the law. to live inside the poem is to be an outlaw. the poem and the outlaw. the outlaw and the poem. to catch a glimpse of the other side. this is what todd moore provides. james dean allowed us to catch a glimpse of the real actor in his first scene in a movie: atop a train in east of eden. james dean and the train. the train and james dean. two archetypes in sync. todd moore and the poem. the poem and todd moore. two archetypes in sync. for the poem opens a window, opens a door into a different kind of perception, a different kind of sensation, a different kind of experience. the outlaw makes us see the world in a different way. to live inside the poem is to live outside the law. to live inside the poem is to be an outlaw.

whether it is james dean going up in flames at the age of 24 or todd moore brandishing a new fire at the age of 71, the message is the same: find your outlaw fire and set the day and night to burning. and like the straight razor blues, the poem is about transformation, transmutation, the poem is about taking on a life of its own. to live inside the poem is to live outside the law. to live inside the poem is to be an outlaw.

…all that
over more
danger i
wanna wear
a hat w/a
bullet hole
thru it
& have
all the dark
ness in
& spilling
& slopping
i wanna
have so
much class
i can
look death
in the eye
& say
fuck you

can a 71-year-old writing poetry have the same kind of intensity, the same kind of edge as a young james dean making ingenious movies and thumbing his nose at hollywood? can a 71-year-old writing poetry have the same kind of intensity, the same kind of edge as a young hank williams, a young robert johnson, a young elvis presley? can he change his art form in the way that these three changed their music venues? can a 71-year-old writing poetry attain that piece of the fire that burns up the page? that same gigantic intensity found in the solos of miles davis and john coltrane? that same kind of blood edge that drove john dillinger and billy the kid? to live inside the poem is to live outside the law. to live inside the poem is to be an outlaw.

opened his
mouth to
say some
thing & it
looked as
tho the
skin on
his cheeks
was trying
to crawl
off his

where in all the waves of time do you find the outlaw? where in all the mirrors of space do you find the poem? where will the poet and the poem surpass the power of the actor and the movie? where will the poet and the poem surpass the power of the singer and the song? where will the poet and the poem surpass the power of the storyteller and the story? in todd moore you find the actor and the movie, the singer and the song, the story and the storyteller. but more than that, you find the essential elements of the poem and the poet: the transmutation of language into a fire in the blood, the transmutation of language into a whole different wave of vision, the transmutation of language into an unveiling of pure passion. to live inside the poem is to live outside the law. to live inside the poem is to be an outlaw. by Tony Moffeit

Blind Whiskey & The Straight Razor Blues. By Todd Moore. 2008. 43pp; Pa; Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books, POB 54, Manasquan, NJ 08736.This and other Todd Moore books are available here…

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tony moffeit | working on my duende

Todd Moore

Working On My Duende

Illustrated by

Wayne Hogan

Copyright 1999 by Todd Moore. Illustrations copyright 1999 by Wayne Hogan. ISBN: 1-888832-08-8. Kings Estate Press 870 Kings Estate Road St. Augustine, Florida 32086-5033.

Outlaw’s Duende

By Tony Moffeit

Todd Moore’s duende is the outlaw’s duende. It has as much in common with the personas of Billy the Kid, John Dillinger, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Jack Kerouac, as it does with Federico Garcia Lorca’s duende. Moore states at the beginning of his poem that it’s not Lorca’s duende, not Spain’s duende, that he is working on, and substitutes his own duende, Albuquerque’s duende. The central themes of the duende are death and darkness. The principal personas conjured up by the duende themes are those who wrestled with living to such an intensity that they died relatively young. All of the above examples fit this idea, along with such personas as Zapata, Manolete, Frida Kahlo, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, James Dean, and Neal Cassady. There are also those personas with relatively lengthy lives, such as Walt Whitman, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, who lived close in the darkness. Both types of personas are explored by Todd Moore in Southwest settings.

The artistic outlaw is separate, passionate, individualistic, independent. Externally, his life might not be that different, but internally, he lives by his own laws, and his life and art are revolutionary. Todd Moore moved from John Dillinger country to Billy the Kid country a few years ago, and this work is a unique and profound evocation of the spirit of the duende as expressed through the Southwest via Albuquerque, New Mexico. Moore’s poem is charged with the musical spirit that is so much a part of the duende, whether it is exemplified by a flamenco guitarist or an old blues singer. When this musical spirit is combined with reflections on the archetypes of death, the result is irresistible ; a metaphorical journey from the Spanish conquistadors to the Mexico of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to a whole series of scenarios of the black sounds found in the streets of Albuquerque and the dreams of Todd Moore. Moore sings and paints a host of experiences both literary and real-life, working on the texture and symbols of the poem as if doing a sandpainting. Two symbols seem to haunt the poem throughout ; Death in a series of identities and metaphors and the phantom presence of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Moore stalks the face of death lurking behind many masks while working on his duende. Looks poets in the face working on his duende. Looks Albuquerque in the eye while working on his duende. Looks himself in the eye working on his duende. Is haunted by Mexico’s Day of the Dead while working on his duende. Moore works on his duende like Kerouac and Cassady charging into Mexico. Moore works on his duende like the New Mexico poet, Kell Robertson, drifting and wandering, riding a horse called deperation. Moore works on his duende like the blues singer Robert Johnson being pursued by the hellhound. His sandpainting quickly becomes an Indian blanket, full of layer upon layer of texture and image, then an Anasazi pot with strange geometries. Moore is giving us a true poem of the Southwest, working on his duende, full of enchiladas and the chile peppers and refried beans and the Rio Grande.

The duende is a spirit, like the blues is a spirit, like the poem is a spirit. Moore haunts us, conjuring the words and motions of the poem. It is his own private duende, which is what we want from an outlaw, and the duende is carried through his imaginary and real-life experiences which yield a kind of inner history of those living close to death and darkness. Moore reveals the secret chaos of one who hears the unspoken words, the unwritten poems. The duende is a struggle. And this poem is a stuggle with the duende, or more precisely, a struggle to find the duende. Moore finds the duende in Albuquerque, an outlaw duende that is deeply personal, a duende that walks in and out of ghost worlds, a duende that talks and dances with the dead and the living, a duende that rings with the laughter of trickster coyote, a duende in which death and life are dancing partners.

Wayne Hogan, widely published poet, man of letters, and illustrator, has graced nearly all of Kings Estate Press’s recent publications with his artwork. He lives with his charming wife, Susan, in Cookeville, Tennessee, but has been known to travel in the interest of his muses.

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john yamrus | blind whiskey and the straight razor blues

A review of Todd Moore’s


by John Yamrus

Maybe it’s the attitude. Maybe it’s the intelligence. Maybe it’s the wit. I don’t exactly know what it is, but there’s something about Todd Moore’s in-your-face approach to poetry that has fascinated and entertained me right from the beginning, so many years ago.

The prolific movie director, Roger Corman, the king of quickie movies…a director of talent and nerve, who wasn’t afraid of succeeding or failing by following the adage “first thought, best thought” (although in Corman’s parlance it was more likely “first shot, best shot”) once directed a 1958 gangster movie titled “I, Mobster”. For some reason I can’t seem to get that movie out of my head. It starred B movie legend Yvette Vickers and even had a part for aging strip club goddess Lili St. Cyr.

It’s a wonderfully tacky movie, filled with all the blood, gore, sex and guts that 1958 would allow.

Why all the tackiness? Why all the blood, gore and guts? I don’t know. Maybe we should ask the same question to Todd Moore, because his latest book of poems, BLIND WHISKEY & THE STRAIGHT RAZOR BLUES gives us all of that…and more. Starting off with that great title, the book takes us on a roller coaster ride through a wet-slick, rainy night world with a cast of characters who seem to have come straight out of the pages of a Mickey Spillane novel. There are no muted colours here. Everything is vivid, sharp and bright. The characters in the poems all have names like Whitey and Sonny and Taggart and Rio. Tough guy names. And you know it without it even being said that all the women wear red dresses and have garters and nylons with seams up the back of their legs. The book is consistent. Of course, consistency has always been a hallmark of Moore’s poetry. All but 2 of the 36 poems describe violent and deadly activities of some kind. Shootings. Stabbings. Beatings.

These poems are film noir on steroids.

Interestingly, though, the poems that tell the most about this great little book are those 2 that aren’t particularly overly violent. The first one, placed smack, dab in the middle of the book, written (I think) in Moore’s own voice, reads:

the way

i write
is strictly
fuck you
no cap
ital letters
no punc
the words
or all
up like bro
ken glass
pop cans
& used
the ameri
can sen
tence is
either a
or a
& i’m
to watch
it explode

It’s almost as if Moore’s giving us a quick peek behind the mask, or showing us the wheels, gears and springs inside the clock. For some reason, this poem hit me even harder than the others. It seems to be Moore’s way of saying “Look, man, I am what I am and that’s just the way it is. Take it or leave it.”

Before I move on to the final poem in the book, the second less than violent poem, I’ve got to quote one of the other poems. It’s shorter than most of the other poems, but it’s certainly indicative of what Moore is doing not only in this book, but in much of his other work as well:

luke shoved

the auto
into far
go’s guts
& fired
his gun

Take note of the hard-boiled action, the short, disjointed lines and the total absence of any type of standard denouement or explanation. It’s pure Joe Friday. Dragnet. “Nothing but the facts, ma’am, please”.

The final poem in the book is absolutely riveting. To me, it’s either a typo or a coolly, calculated head game, laid out not at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment, but more to make you stop for a minute and do a double-take…to make you ask “did I just see that?” The same thing can well be said about this entire book. This is a magic act by a master magician.

Look, I’m not even going to quote that final poem. I don’t want to give away the end of the movie. Get yourself a copy of this one. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. But do yourself a favour…before you open it…before you step into this room peopled with Todd Moore’s special group of low-lifes, killers, bastards and floozies, be sure to roll up the bottoms of your pants, because they just might get a little soiled.
And it don’t wash out.
John Yamrus – 11/10/08


by Todd Moore | Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books | 44 pages | ISBN 1-877968-41-2 | P.O. Box 54 | Manasquan, NJ 08736

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