Comfort and Agony: Jennifer Moxley's Clampdown
With every book, Moxley experiments a little differently with the proportions of artificiality, archaism and slanginess. Her prosody continually evokes Hart Crane and Robert Creeley, two masters who combined courtly and sensual address with metrical austerity (Creeley is ostensibly a master of plain style, but his plain style masks its roots in English song). Moxley's indispensable The Sense Record luxuriates in a language descended from that shimmering line in Crane's "Voyages," "all the argosy of your bright hair." From the book's title poem:
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.
The net effect of Moxley's strange style has often been to foreground the sexiness of language and the poet, but their awkwardness too; it's a style that cultivates and explores the notion of wrong life. For to write in one's "natural" speaking voice already presupposes eloquence and fluency, and fluency presupposes ease. Moxley is definitely not at ease, either in her body or this country or century. She is in the wrong life, which cannot be written rightly. Thus she reconstructs another language--both yearning and alienated. In Clampdown it is a language in which she can confess her doubt and despair about the "chlorine rising up from the drains," the fluorescent bulbs, the nylon bedspreads of the middle-class bedroom, the fake plastic trees. Moxley's unmasking of American bounty as actual impoverishment thus has a lyric equivalent: the unmasking of the usual seductions and blandishments of the poem as an upmarket ad for metaphysical comforts. She strips away her privacy, bares her most vulnerable self, from the shabbiness of her home decor to the humiliations of a female who occasionally forgets--then remembers--her age. But unlike with confessional poets, Moxley's vulnerability stays vulnerable. In her poetry there is no narrative of healing or empowerment, just as there is no turning back time.
Moxley's relationship to poetry, and to other poets, is a recurring theme in her work; it stands in for an ethics or utopian politics where a coherent stance on world affairs might be impossible. Or, if not exactly impossible, then vulnerable to arguments, analysis and co-optation into a fruitless dialectic. She wants writing, and dreaming, to constitute utopian acts in themselves, but she's better at enacting this than arguing it, as in her poem "The Fountain":
The public policing
of money and morals
such as this--
for most of us
to "grow up"
to loathe what's cheap
and what's free,
when to value
the latter is
surely to be it.
The pleasure of
tonguing a pink-
does not accrue,
it can be repeated
endlessly and yet
feel quite new.
The poem argues that casual sex epitomizes autonomy, but that we repress pleasures that render money, and accumulation, superfluous. (The inference is that poetry is devalued for the same reason.) These are partial truths at best, but couching them in a poem aching with nostalgia for free-ranging teenage lust and truancy is kind of obtuse, as if cruising were political action.
It's the way Moxley has fashioned herself, and her poetry, in relation to her readers and peers that constitutes her one clear political gesture. By publishing almost exclusively with very small, select presses and little magazines, she has drawn a tight circle of accessibility around herself, rejecting the realpolitik of po-biz. It seems she wouldn't be caught dead in the vicinity of Bread Loaf or in the pages of American Poetry Review. After all, what could be more alienating than "submission" to magazines, accumulation of rejection slips, the lottery of prizes and grants and residencies? Against unwarranted charges of elitism, she has written some sharp poems about her sense of vocation, including "The Best American Poetry" from her collection The Sense Record: "Nothing matters that is not made to matter," she asserts, and ends:
unlike the bird, need not, in the ferment
of small objectives, desert material
purpose, we can direct the equitable
increments, though they provide no guarantee
the outcome shall be just.
Moxley's insistence that we make our own meaning is borne out in offbeat and stubborn ways: some may be futile, but it's our only hope for autonomy, and for a space in which to make unorthodox poems and lead a "wrong life," with monumental nerve, in the eyes of the wider culture. We're humans, not birds. We're not chirping; our songs have content. What will that content be?