Comfort and Agony: Jennifer Moxley's Clampdown
Moxley is no isolato, though. She was lucky to have had an education in how art-making is structured by ideological context and audience, early on, when she was a student at the University of California, San Diego, in the mid-'80s. Her teachers included Stephen Rodefer (who was once Charles Olson's student) and Rae Armantrout (once Denise Levertov's student). Moxley fell in with a group of friends who mutually reaffirmed one another's poetic vocations under the tutelage of the charismatic Rodefer; one of those friends became her life partner. The two moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where they received degrees at Brown University and were mentored by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, whose Burning Deck Press has become an institution, keeping alive a European brand of twentieth-century literary experimentalism, publishing French and German poets alongside Harry Mathews and Marjorie Welish and Paul Auster. (Moxley has translated the contemporary French poet Jacqueline Risset for Burning Deck and Ugly Duckling Presse.) Moxley teaches at the University of Maine, home of the National Poetry Foundation, which has sustained the legacy of Black Mountain and Objectivist poets. (Moxley recounted her formative years in her memoir, The Middle Room, a 600-page tome; its mannered style and antique passions recall Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, the first volume of W.B. Yeats's Autobiography.)
This engagement with poetry as a metonym for utopian politics and longing--a vale of soulmaking in which social formations are as crucial as, say, first picking up Chapman's Homer--also provides Moxley with a unique kind of nightmare. In her book The Line, prose poems inflected with Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, she wrote apocalyptically, "I have deduced the advent of this shake-up by watching myself slowly abandon the things I once stood for and loved." The same fear of self-betrayal gives pathetic power to poems like "On the Face of It":
in the moment when,
body pavement bound,
downed by a slight dizziness,
disoriented, dignity lost,
the world we assumed to rule
suddenly changed and odd,
we turn our eyes, our fearful eyes,
like those of a displaced animal
endangered by outdated instincts,
and give ourselves over with gratitude
to the care of anyone who's there.
Likewise, one's core self and ideals may suddenly be revealed as the ultimate in bad faith, as in "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.
The terrible indictment she adds to Ezra Pound's poetic principle, "Make it new," collapses the work each generation does, whether in poetry or in government, into one Nietzschean--or, now, Darwinian--scumble. This horror bears the seed of an original insight. And this is important to remember because for some readers, Clampdown will come across as mordant and moralizing. Do we really spend our days staring disconsolately at our old bedspreads, wondering why we never became the next Rosa Luxemburg? This angst, which I can't quite take at face value, reminds me of a passage in critic George Scialabba's essay on Isaiah Berlin, who wrote of the "notoriously unsatisfactory, at times agonizing, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition." Scialabba responds: "This is a perfectly honorable position, but it is not, as far as I can see, an agonizing one. It seems, in fact, quite a comfortable one."
The dialectic of physical comfort and intellectual agonizing in Moxley's work does sometimes stall in a cul-de-sac, as in "The Occasion," one of the centerpieces of Clampdown. The poem dramatizes an afterparty for a revered poet (female, unnamed) visiting at the university where Moxley teaches. The Iraq War has begun, and visible from the host's window is an American flag hung on an immigrant neighbor's mobile home. An argument about the flag and the war slowly heats up; everyone is eventually hoist with her own petard of petty power relations and resentments. Interspersed with this scenario are quotations from Genesis 18, where God and Abraham spar over the fate of Sodom:
And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?...
And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
Abraham keeps inquiring, reducing the number (forty-five? thirty? twenty? ten?), and the Lord keeps agreeing to spare the city for the sake of that many righteous. Why does Moxley make a device of Abraham's challenge to God? Is she praying that the righteous of the United States number enough to save us, only to discover their numbers continually reduced even in her own company of beloved poets? It's unclear. In a poem about failure--failure of nerve and failure of love--this may just be another episode in Moxley's ongoing exploration of kinds of valor in poetry. Valor often fails. The appropriation of that scary biblical injunction, though, begins to seem suspect if only because it invokes a question every poet eventually asks herself: "Would I continue to devote my life to poetry (and failure) for fifty readers?... How about ten?" This slippage from agony over the Other to agony over one's own irrelevance is a moral danger Moxley seems to recognize but not entirely elude.
And yet. Robert Duncan once said of his cohorts, "That I might 'like' or 'dislike' a poem of Zukofsky's or Charles Olson's means nothing where I turn to their work as evidence of the real. Movement and association here are not arbitrary, but arise as an inner need." So too with Moxley: never tinny, never trivial, her self-dramatizing has yielded poems that spill over with terror and bitterness, high lyricism and lust. (It's not French experimentalists she should be translating; it's Antigone.) That she sets her personal theater against the backdrop of the world stage may seem like a grandiose gesture, but it is a necessary one. The figure she cuts is as erect and austere as a gnomon; the shadow she casts will be long.