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Jennifer Moxley’s new volume is – for a book that deals mostly with fear, doubt, anxiety and loss – stupendously exciting. Beautifully and sympathetically produced (as ever) by Flood Editions, it has the aura of an instant classic. More than that – and on a purely personal level – I had the uncanny feeling while reading it that this was exactly the book I had hoped Moxley would write following her two big productions of 2007, The Middle Room (Subpress) and The Line (The Post-Apollo Press), while being at the same time nothing I could have predicted in advance. I will explain.
Those two works, thoroughly dissimilar in form – a sprawling, almost Victorian-scaled memoir versus a tight set of acerbic prose poems – nevertheless shared a deep self-absorption and concern with writing that could, to an uncharitable reader, skirt dangerously close to outright solipsism (both are concerned to a large degree, in fact, with whether or not they have already succumbed). The Middle Room, written in a charmingly transparent and faux-naive (or maybe not so faux- ) style, details the ‘growth of the poet’s mind’ from her San Diego adolescence through her education (sentimental and otherwise) to her final uneasy emergence as a self-affirmed poet. It is refreshingly free of any attempt to make its subject appear more hip, cool, caring or smart than she really was (in fact, one often suspects the opposite). Instead it is so open and free-ranging that it builds an impressive welter of profundity and insight over its 633 pages: on mortality, toward which Moxley seems to harbour an understandable hatred and rage; on how often and unconsciously we thwart ourselves in love and life (Moxley talks about possessing a ‘wicked interior spy’ who upsets her careful plans at every turn); on artistic ambition, about which again she is powerfully honest and revealing. Big issues about which contemporary authors are too often too busy being arch and ironic to say anything interesting.
The Line revisits these topics from a more detached, allegorical perspective, covering the mysteries of sleep, consciousness, inspiration, habitat, the nasty social politics of writing ‘scenes’ (see the wonderfully cutting ‘The Spoilt Male Child’, which sensibly names no names), and the ‘line’ itself, not simply a pleasingly ironic name for a group of prose poems, but an image of poetic tradition, a chain stretching back into the past that the neophyte can aspire to join and therefore evade death. Everywhere it works to make the writer’s individual foibles and self-criticism exemplary and useful. Autobiographic elements surface in odd places, not least in the structural principal, somewhat akin to that of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life: there are 43 individual poems, Moxley’s age at the time of publication. Unforgiving of either self or reality, it is a whip-smart, bracing, impressively unified work, but hardly loveable (for all that matters).
As entertaining and complete as these enterprises seemed, this reader at least had flickers of concern about whether or not Moxley had narrowed her subject unnecessarily to a field interesting and applicable only to other writers, especially in light of her incredible and varied 2002 collection, The Sense Record (Edge). What about the ‘common reader’ (presuming that he or she did still exist)? One hoped that together these works represented some kind of watershed for Moxley, a necessary re-visioning or even mastering of the past, akin to Dante’s Vita Nova, making room for a greater, more expansive work to follow. From the evidence of Clampdown, this is precisely what has happened.
Not that the latter book represents a radical change in Moxley’s approach or subject matter. She still writes about writerly anxiety, the vagaries and difficulties of love (she is a great poet of what next: the ongoing realisations, recognitions, renegotiations, and realignments that follow when one has actually discovered one’s soul-mate: see the spectacularly joy-free ‘Epithalamium’, in which the best that can be hoped for from a relationship is ‘the final touch on the temporary cage’) and the incessant pain of loss (hers is a powerfully elegiac muse). If anything, the (artistic) success of The Middle Room has made her freer and more confident in her use of her own life as materia poetica: we are presented with (among other things) metaphysical nostalgia for teenage lust (“The Fountain”), disturbing dreams about Christmas decorations (‘Mother Night’), a quiet night in (‘Taking My Own Advice’), a cat hit by a car (‘For a Cat Struck by a Car’) and the wonderful long title poem, where scenes of the ‘San Diego literati’ at the beach are juxtaposed with more serious concerns, which reads almost like a deliberate coda to the longer book.
Formally, the new poems are more relaxed too, even when the content isn’t. Two long-lined wonders are written ‘After James Schuyler’ and one ‘After Ashbery’s “Clepsydra”’, finding in the New York School a useful model for balancing breezy everyday detail with more weighty intimations. Moxley’s interest in traditional form comes together too: compare these lines from the 2002 sonnet ‘Against Aubade’:
Alone the mind can store old years anew
with furnishings our Eros will forsake
without concern, the watchman’s cry rings true
my love, we should no longer lie awake
but stellar-like in darkness drift compelled
our matter’s myth in time shall be dispelled.
– fun but slightly stilted – with these confident, relaxed ballad quatrains from ‘Mother’s Day’:
Affixed yet without galaxy,
relations drift away
unmoored by the weak gravity
of red blood turned ash gray.
And yet I’d rather drift in dread
of dark oblivion
than forge a law in someone’s head
they’ll not recover from.
There is even a villanelle – the playfully-entitled ‘The Measure’ – that feels more an organic necessity than a pointless exercise: a real rarity. Moxley’s larger formal palette – possibly a deliberate reaction to working so much recently in prose – and her control over it is of one the most attractive features of an attractive collection.
Greater confidence in both form and content enables Moxley to look further afield, it seems – this is her most political-charged work since the early poems collected in 2005’s Often Capital (Flood Editions). (One suspects again a natural reaction to their belated public appearance.) Although it seems a book confidently ‘for the ages’ – each poem interests, is faceted and finished, and most resonate long after they are read – Clampdown’s appearance is nonetheless timely. More then any other work I’ve encountered it evokes what it was like to live through the Bush Era: an internal alternation of outrage, incredulity, frustration, powerlessness and self-loathing. Key here is long poem ‘The Occasion’, first published as a Belladonna chapbook in 2002, resurfacing in the 2003 Salt republication of The Sense Record in the UK, before finding its rightful place in the current book. Its subject matter – a group of writers discussing the war in Iraq over dinner – could be insufferable, but Moxley somehow finds a useful balance between well-intentioned liberal hand-wringing and a more detached meditative perspective. She implicates rather than accuses, her favourite pronoun become ‘we’. So ‘The Logic of Survival’ compares Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and Aeneas’ arrival in Italy with British and American imperialism, while opening poem ‘The Price of Silence’ finishes with the question ‘Why should we awake?’ – both cynical refusal and serious call for a mission. The personal is the ethical and vice versa; there is no clear divide. This strain forms a constant undersong throughout the collection, even in poems more obviously ‘domestic’ and lyrical. It finds its most lacerating expression at the close of ‘Our Defiant Motives’:
Are we ashamed of our own well-being?
Does it admit of a terrible pact somewhere in our past?
Let’s not turn to face the wake, in which some may be
drowning. Rather, let’s redraw its rippling “V” to suit
our need to feel that we are the ones who really suffered.
We suffered the most. More than anyone else, for we
understood their suffering, didn’t we, and we
were the ones who took it upon ourselves to make it new.
Yes, the reader whispers under his or her breath, ‘we’. Has the word ‘understood’ ever been used more chillingly?
If Moxley’s return to ‘engagement’ is one of the more engaging aspects of Clampdown, even more exhilarating is the sense that anything is now possible for her and that her future writing could take her (and us) anywhere; the locked-down title seems at times pointedly ironic. The ekphrastic sequence ‘Seven Days’, on paintings by MaJo Keleshian, offers one possible avenue, the seventh section in particular rising to a visionary intensity worth quoting at length:
On the dark sponge of sky-packed earth
the gelled feathers of ink-black birds
deteriorate along a parched shore,
while foreign dust mites creep over the hull
of an equatorial ship as it slowly lists
through the dunes of a forgotten desert.
Sparks of flame rise up, as if in celebration.
Seventh-hour sea grass waves through
the thick warm watery air as the message
of the absorbent sun it reshapes and
reforms into tong-like tentacles whose
meaning we, from our place in the mud,
can no longer make out well enough to read.
The worst that could be said about Moxley’s earlier writing is that it is too much about writing; this is the thing itself.
Over the last few years, a spate of books – one thinks immediately of works like Kevin Davis’ The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Peter Gizzi’s Some Values of Landscape and Weather and The Outernational and Elizabeth Willis’ Meteoric Flowers – has shown poets of about Moxley’s age really coming into their own. Clampdown shares this sense of promise fulfilled and then some: it is paradoxical (or miraculous?) that work so apparently steeped in insecurity and doubt should speak with such authority. But here, as ever, Moxley is ahead of us; the closing lines of ‘The Refusal’ could almost be her motto:
We suspend our disbelief not when the actor
is believable but when she herself believes.
Moxley believes in poetry even when she is unsure of herself. It shows. She has long been the most promising poet of her generation, but this new book makes a confident claim that she is its best.
Rob Stanton lives with wife and cats in Savannah, GA. His writings have appeared online in such places as Eoagh, Dusie, Fascicle, Great Works, How2, Octopus, Shampoo, Shearsman and Verse, as well as in Jacket 25, 31 and 33. He can be contacted at rob_stanton77[ât]hotmail.com. This is the most fetching photograph of him.