Primitive Mood

David Moolten

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Winner of the 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize

This collection of poems examines the damaged lives of society’s lost and marginalized using myth and fairy tale as an ironic lens.





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Winner of the 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize

This collection of poems examines the damaged lives of society’s lost and marginalized using myth and fairy tale as an ironic lens. Eschewing sentiment or facile prescription, poet David Moolten’s dispassionate but respectful renderings of his characters’ sufferings debunk wishful indifference and reveal profiles in strength. From the plight of the urban junkie to genocide both contemporary and historical, the poems allow the truth to tell itself, in language that is both potent and efficient. The verse is exacting in its precision, but ultimately casts the light of hope on the immediate darkness.

Each of David Moolten’s poems creates a finely observed human story, a story told with deep empathy and compassion, and often with a palpable sense of gratitude. Whether he writes of his Jewish grandfather’s response to Wagner’s music, or “The Girl Without Hands,” or a Native American activist who “drank herself out / of a smashed marriage,” Moolten transforms our world by evoking theirs. He approaches human suffering and injustice with steadiness and tenderness, a clinical eye and a passionate heart. I came away from reading Primitive Mood with the feeling expressed at the end of the poem “Klezmer”: “Even now I’m greedy to hear more.” 

—Jack Coulehan, MD, author of Medicine Stone

The poems on the page are powerful and substantial, extremely elegant in appearance. The poet’s view is exact, casting hope on so much immediate darkness of the world. Again, the poet is a capable one, luring the reader in with a revelry of lush detail and memorable images. There is a strong preoccupation here on behalf of the damaged, the displaced, the hurt . . . and it works on the reader’s psyche, rendering many of these poems quite memorable. Hauntingly beautiful, this collection is just the right potent mixture of reality and modern-day fable. I am thrilled that such poetry exists and it is being written by such capable hands.

—Virgil Suárez, 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize Judge

Taking the dark landscape of our human history as background, David Moolten, in his powerful and finely wrought collection, explores the primitive urges that set us against each other, and the cultural heritage—fairy tales, oral histories, legends, narratives—that seems a testament to the cruelties we are capable of. If our “primitive mood” in life is grief, it comes from our all too ruthless acquaintance with wreckage and violence, sometimes through large apocalypses, other times through personal devastations. And any salvation for us lies in our notions of tolerance and restraint, and perhaps in our abiding belief in an indefinable spirit that “bears us / Up and onwards in spite of ourselves.” These are unflinching, brooding poems of great scope and understanding.

  —Gregory Djanikian, author of
So I Will Till the Ground



Part I
The Girl Without Hands
Boy Raised by Wolves
The Escape
Sleeping Beauty
The Red Shoes
Yellow Star
Bomber at the Museum
Photograph of Mass Grave Unearthed, Rwanda

Part II
The Goose Girl
Easter, 1930
Lorca in Harlem, 1929
Lorca’s Grave
Captain Barros Basto, Apostle of the Marranos
Blood of the Beasts
Nijinsky, 1939
Cargo Cult
Parable of the Capsized Canoe
Rape of the Sabine Women

Part III
Slow Dance
Groundless and Still Believed

About the Author


As a physician-artist, poet David Moolten bridges the gap between medicine and the humanities, and has assisted in pioneering their combination as an academic discipline. Moolten was born in Boston in 1961 to a Jewish research physician and a Puerto Rican biochemist. He graduated from Harvard University in 1982 and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1987, and currently resides in Philadelphia, where he practices medicine and writes poetry. He has published two other collections of poetry, Plums and Ashes and Especially Then.

Visit Moolten’s Website

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In his newest book, Primitive Mood, David Moolten picks at humanity’s darkest tendencies and deepest capacities for suffering. Like a patchwork quilt of the twentieth century, the poems in this volume handle violence and loss, questioning and disillusionment, determination and resilience. In quiet, authoritative and incantatory language, Moolten probes the fabric of culture in the West—from the Brothers Grimm to Arshile Gorky—for material that bears his project witness. What emerges is a densely woven and engaging collection of poems, delivered with rhythmic diction, and sometimes reminiscent of spoken word poetry in its rolling momentum and charged endings. With all of the darkness of war, genocide, and internment that Moolten lays bare in this volume, there is also a light that enters through the “aperture” of his writing to illuminate the everyday people silhouetted against the dark backdrop of history, reworking their own suffering into beautiful stories. It is this creative power of narrative that stands against the destruction evident in human history in Primitive Mood, and which is also present in Moolten’s powerful and intelligent writing. Moolten’s language is crisp and evocative, and lends itself well to his project of storytelling and remembering.

Philadelphia Stories, Winter 2009–10

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