In 1996, when Jennifer Moxley’s first book, Imagination Verses, was published to underground acclaim, the prevailing story was that, like the return of the repressed, the personal lyric had been reborn from the chance encounter of a girl genius and a violently anti-lyrical avant-garde. Imagination Verses was almost old-fashioned–full of love poems and soliloquies. But Moxley’s ear was decidedly trained by writers outside the mainstream anthologies: not Elizabeth Bishop or Sylvia Plath but experimental small-press poets like Bernadette Mayer and Rae Armantrout. Now some may see Moxley as a harbinger of the big poetic trend of the 2000s, sometimes known as “lyric postmodernism” or “hybrid poetics.” This is a genre that has embraced the subjective “I” while rejecting the confessional voice; at the same time, it has appropriated the house style of the avant-garde, acute fracture and abstraction, while shedding its political baggage. What serves as content, finally, is language that speaks itself, an oracle mediating between poet and world, individual and history. It’s the very definition of poetry set out by Theodor Adorno in his 1957 essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society.” We are concerned, he said, “not with the poet as a private person, not with his psychology or his so-called social perspective, but with the poem as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.”
Moxley knows her Adorno. The follow-up to Imagination Verses was a chapbook called Wrong Life, a title cribbed from Adorno’s famous aperçu: “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” Much of Moxley’s work can be read in the light of this damning little sentence and the chapter it punctuates in Minima Moralia, “Refuge for the Homeless.” Moxley’s ethical anxieties emanate from a central unease, unease at home, and ripple out to touch nation, earth and cosmos. But unlike the legions of poets who now adopt (and inevitably flatten) an Adornian mode of lyric, Moxley does not sublimate her psychology and social perspective. Clampdown, her new collection of poems, is startlingly particular, privacy-shattering and abject. It isn’t postmodern or experimental or hybrid, and parts of it aren’t even very lyrical–often she tones down her flights of gorgeous language to speak precisely and discursively, as if face to face with an interlocutor. Never uncontrolled, never artless and never not in command of rhetoric, Moxley has written a book that could be available to a wide readership. Her expressive clarity, however, lures us into a universe of such self-doubt and self-cancellations that we find ourselves again, dialectically, in the company of Adorno: “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” From “The Price of Silence”:
It is suffocating beneath this vinyl window,
in whose fake glued-on mullions we see a cross.
But it doesn’t mean anything. No word
can be uttered or kept in store to chant us
out of losing. The whir of the washing machine
as it pours detergent down the sewer pipes,
chlorine rising up from the drains. The compact
fluorescent bulb in the gooseneck lamp
with a broken spring neither mutters
nor sputters playfully. Things don’t speak
our distance. The phone, though loud, tinny,
and insistent, cannot, it seems, be found.
We oppress in a way we cannot pay for
in any direct or meaningful way. All is fake.