Monday, December 09, 2002

The title piece of Jennifer Moxley’s extraordinary The Sense Record is an astonishing poem – astonishing because it dares to go where virtually no post-avant writing has gone in a generation. This is the first stanza:

Under the threat of another light downpour
Eros, soaked by the rain-water,
spoke to the sentient flowers.
Sadness, no longer extraneous,
began the derangement of nerve,
bypassed the bleeding heart
to pierce the blood-brain barrier.
This all en route to the two-car garage.
I was worn with the labor that augurs despair,
life in the futile percentile, when past
my squeamish eyelash, buffeted by scallops
of small will, the slightest fairy brushed.
My rubber soles conformed to the stones
as I followed and spied the backyard starlet
allongée on an orange blossom, delicate
beside the drinking bees, blithe amidst
sharp blades of grass, a rain-drop seductress
entertaining ants on the folding lip
of a pinkster leaf.

Sadness, despair, futile, squeamish, derangement, “the bleeding heart.” Yet Eros communing with the “sentient flowers,” it becomes apparent by the end of the next stanza, was the cheery part:

                                                From aloft
the insect mezzanine these patterns
portend the rot of hours, as one paperstrip
wilts atop the next. Little deaths
sufficient to wake the council of
discarded causes. Under the concrete cracks
the tenacious weed-roots rattle,
reassigned from lawn destruction
to ankle espionage, and in the grass
the poet whispers:

            “death death death death death

            between two hopes
in brittle mid-years, all is vanity”

Or later, from the second of the poem’s six sections:

I feel sick to think that she, that we
had, and have, but one pursuit
and one pursuit alone.

Or the opening of the final section:

Eros tell me why, without love,
without hate, listening
to the softly falling rain
upon the rooftops of the city,
my heart has so much pain.
What I write in truth today
tomorrow will be in error.
Yet the words keep coming,
mundane and repetitive
With no job “to be done”
nor doctrine to stand for.

Oh postmodern irony, where is thy wink? It’s not to be found anywhere in this poem’s eleven pages. Largely bracketed between two quotations from Verlaine, “The Sense Record” presents the grimmest view of contemporary alternatives we have had since perhaps William Bronk. I don’t normally think of Moxley in that context – she is so much more the stylist that one can slide easily into the elegance of her forms & almost luxuriate at that level alone.

That, I think, is why “death” is repeated five times in the most utterly artless moment in the entire book. Moxley doesn’t want to let us off the hook – one can almost imagine how another poet such as Ashbery would deflect the absolute directness of this address, bringing in everything from elderly aunts to whatever he’s rescued from the Disney back lot. For anyone with such access to style, the argument that the pleasure of the journey is life’s point might well be enough. For Moxley, clearly it’s not.

This is where the question of fashion gets interesting. In pure terms of traditional stylistics, Moxley is an absolute master – much more adept than, say, Geoffrey Hill’s hurdy-gurdy efforts. To make matters even more complicated, Moxley associates with – and publishes in the journals of – the newer generation of post-avant writing, which allegedly eschews direct address & seems to treat the absence of irony as one of the great sins of the poets of quietude.* Some of the other poets published by Rod Smith’s Edge Books include Anselm Berrigan, Kevin Davies, Tom Raworth, Aldon Nielson, Mark Wallace, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joan Retallack and Chris Stroffolino. So how is it that Moxley fits in here? Why isn’t she hailed as the salvation of traditional values in literature? And why is she accorded such great respect from poets who refuse to write an elegy without slipping in at least a triple-entendre somewhere?

I know a few folks who would argue that Moxley might be yet another item in a list of evidence suggesting that it’s not what you know in poetry that determines where a writer plays so much as who you know. But I don’t think that’s it at all. Rather, I think that the reason one doesn’t find her line up alongside the “anti-anti-coherency” contingent is that her work déjà toujours presumes the context of post-avant writing. That little barb out of Pound’s Cantos at the end of the poem’s first section is a tell-tale clue. The directness of her address & that loving attention to the nuances of syntax is a combination that makes its greatest sense situated midway between, say, Anselm Berrigan & Tom Raworth.

Just as John Berryman’s Dream Songs would make for dreadful language poetry, but whose excellence shines through when set against the backdrop of the Boston Brahmin variant of the school of quietude, Moxley’s poetry takes its razor’s edge from its social context. In one way, she is as out of place in her time & her crowd as Jack Spicer once was amidst the speech-based (& often enough linguistics-ignorant) poetics of the New American Poetry. It’s as if she has decided to be the bad conscience of post-avant writing, the one who reminds everybody else that “this is serious – you are doomed.”

Poets who take this kind of stance are often in for a certain amount of tsuris. Barrett Watten has had to contend with readers who, struck dumb it would seem by his demand for a serious reading, can’t begin to see where the marvelous sharp wit in his poetry lies. I know major post-avant writers who say point-blank that Spicer is somebody they just don’t get. And I know others who would argue that this is why William Bronk falls outside almost every major post-avant anthology, as though he were everybody’s designated blind spot (as he seems to be mine).

So Moxley has chosen not to take the easy road, but rather the most difficult one of all. And she does it with such great skill in places that it makes you want to cheer – until you remember that she means it. You are doomed.

* Thus when Jonathan Mayhew complains of my blog’s ”earnestness,” he’s absolutely serious & not at all out of step with a lot of contemporary post-avant writing. I plead guilty even as I note the difference between my critical writing & my poetry.