Comfort and Agony: Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown

Comfort and Agony: Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown

Comfort and Agony: Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown

Instead of offering healing or empowerment, the poetry of Jennifer Moxley explores vulnerability and “wrong life.”


MAJO KELESHIANApproximations 6, 2006, the subject of a poem in Clampdown.

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.

Why should we awake?

Clampdown takes its title from a song on the Clash’s London Calling (“When we’re working for the clampdown/We will teach our twisted speech/To the young believers”). Its doubt-ridden angst, though, is more neoliberal-era Radiohead than post-punk Clash. This is not party music for the Revolution; it’s part “Karma Police,” part “The Bends,” Thom Yorke elegiacally singing “I wish it were the sixties/I wish we could be happy.” “The Price of Silence,” like other poems in the book–“Mother Night,” “These Yearly Returns,” “Friday Night, Candles Out”–puts Moxley’s comfortable home and habits on display in a ritual of self-mockery and pathos. Christmas especially comes in for the full Moxley treatment; her oeuvre is scattered with merciless holiday poems, and Clampdown contains the best of them:

Right before the darkness turned around
and began to head in the other direction,
I had a dream that you and I were decorating
the Christmas tree and I asked you,
as we hung the aging trinkets–the crippled
pinecone elf, the dry construction- paper Santa,
the several odd souvenirs from cultures
both Christian and un-Christian,
bought by my well-meaning parents
in homage to that naïve dream
formerly known as “the family of man”–

“Mother Night” goes on to describe that naïve dream, structured as a question from Moxley and a response from her spouse as they decorate the tree. She asks, “How much goodwill would it take/…to renew the genuine warmth/we used to feel towards one another?” He answers, “For you I guarantee that, by the end/of the season, sympathy and tender care/will outreach judgment and critique.” He ticks off a wish list fulfilled, concluding with “a sprig of sage-colored mistletoe/on the arc of the new bassinet.” Moxley wakens, “delirious” with joy, and realizes it’s all only a dream while she tiptoes over to the real tree in their living room, a withered spectacle.

For the past fifty years, confessional poetry has permitted us the luxury of oversharing–mostly about our sex lives and our parents–in a sentimental gesture ultimately meant to reconcile and heal. Free verse has been confessional poetry’s de facto medium. A supple artifice in the hands of William Carlos Williams or Gregory Corso or Sylvia Plath, free verse has degenerated over the years into a style of no style, a sort of broken vernacular prose, as if language could be as transparent as a glass pane, the better to signal one’s sincerity and truthfulness. The resulting poem substitutes personality for art, supposedly sounding “natural” or “speechlike.”

The arc of Moxley’s work–from Often Capital, written while she was in her early 20s, through Imagination Verses, The Sense Record, The Line and finally Clampdown–works heroically against the obstacle of “natural” voice. On a first reading, Moxley sounds utterly disconcerting, as if she were writing to you on the heels of a marathon session of retyping the poems of William Wordsworth or Thomas Hardy. From “The Yield”:

A thumb of silvery fur ensnared
my visual stupor: it was a mouse
scooting across the perilous ground
that lay between the rustic lean-tos
of brittle nut-brown maple leaves.
Image-gripped, but how to name it,
this will to live in little things?
Upon such monumental nerve
we build and break our wage.

Here, metrical regularity reinforces the artificiality of “ensnared my visual stupor” or “scooting across the perilous ground”; phrases echo nineteenth-century diction but are roiled by contemporary word choices (“scooting,” “visual”). Moxley has always played contemporary off archaic diction to the hilt; Imagination Verses spliced girl-talk and Keats’s dulcet lyricism to very sexy effect:

Hey soldier, go flaunt your swags and jabots elsewhere
this girl is bowing out, full to the glands with garlands
and Democrats, the truthful and bad will eventually see my way.

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
destroys beauty
such as this–
for most of us
to “grow up”
means learning
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-
lipped stranger
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:

       But we,
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?

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.

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