back toJacket2

     |    C O N T E N T S    |    H O M E P A G E    |    J A C K E T   #   N I N E    |    O C T O B E R   1 9 9 9


Pete Smith

the poetry of Jennifer Moxley


Jennifer Moxley JENNIFER MOXLEY raids the past to bring us these presents. The gift is more generous than our fast and greedy times deserve. An early mentor, Susan Howe, provided a model in works such as Pythagorean Silence Moxley's first work The First Division of Labour and the linked sequence, Enlightenment Evidence [the latter reprinted in a significantly shortened version in An Anthology of New (American) Poets, eds. Jarnot, Schwartz and Stroffolino]. In any given generation of poets the models of the recent past will be treated in various ways - from outright rejection, to severe revisionism to mindless imitiation. Rarely, someone comes along who takes the models of the teaching generation and, through them, investigates back to the very roots of lyric poetry. Moxley is, I believe, such a one.
Her new chapbook, Wrong Life, from Rod Mengham's consistently fine imprint Equipage in Cambridge, England, consists of ten poems which add serious weight (gravity) to the achievement of Imagination Verses, from Lee Ann Brown's Tender Buttons press in New York City. Cambridge and New York: the old university town with its reputation for taking no intellectual prisoners and the new mecca of artrage.
I. Home-World Broken
The first poem in Imagination Verses, "Home World" ends with lines that are a key to Wrong Life:

When I remember nature
as an evil dream
that interrupted my house
and destroyed my family . . . 
 . . . I awoke to no words and wonder left.
Wrong Life opens with a poem "Stem of the Tree of Orestes", a branch of the tragic House of Atreus of whom Greek revolutionary poet, Yannis Ritsos, in the poem "Orestes", wrote:


I don't feel hatred any more . . . 
Indeed, I feel a certain sympathy for the murderess -
                    she took the measure of great chasms,
great understanding has widened her eyes in the darkness
and she sees - she sees the inexhaustible, the unattainable,
                    and the unalterable. She sees me.
                                        [from The Fourth Dimension]
and later after resolving to avenge his father's murder, at the hands of his mother and her lover, by killing them both, Orestes asks his companion;

This is the right ending - isn't it? - after the most righteous of fights?

The right ending? The Wrong Life? The title seems born of that world of tragedy the Greeks have bequeathed us along with many oddly amputated statues - noses, limbs, ethics scattered in dust. As Edith Hamilton says of Orestes: "He who wanted only to do right was so placed that he must choose between two hideous wrongs." In Moxley's reference, a far-off inheritor of familial tragedy, an orphan, contemplates the future in the light of this bequest; suggests that the familiar being addressed would not even know if "I remain, / mouthing retarded lies/ beside my container/ of unemptied dutifulness . . . ". Duty is made to sound like an unendable task; while in "Soleil Cou Coupe" the speaker rails, ' "Let the overseers/ put the remains of the earth on trial," you scream, "I'm tired of duty!" '. But duty will not go away: "We find the scales of value during the slow climb towards maturity and knowledge, as we journey towards the completion of what Valery called 'our whole training in the possible.'" [Preface: Imagination Verses.]
A duty Moxley has set herself is the question of how to write the lyric poem without sentiment. She addresses this in the poem "Fixed Idea":

Duty-bound I continue to hock this legitimate
fallacy until my air socked out turns to sidewalk
froth, subjective shred, objective truth out cold
there on the phantom wing of the meaning-
lessness that is his struggle . . . 
I have no natural compassionate impulse and
therefore believe I have swallowed the key: poetry
pounds in the plank of smug memory and wills
no exit.
The speaker, who has opened the poem focusing on a dying bird (the bird of the previous poem, the one with "sun throat slashed"), remarks on the irony of placing personal expression in the arena of a public riot but is spared becoming overwrought on the subject by the bird's death.
                                  Proud metaphysical thrift,
time so extravagant as to condone the unspeakable
inquest of silence. It begins with indecent youthful-
ness which dies by the hand of the shorter life-span
and ends when the reticence of a half-dead bird shows
in my shameless freedom a light of breathtaking cruelty.
The ability to look on without flinching and report the beautiful ugliness of life and death is part of our "training in the possible." Once you have signed on to a life in poetry, there is "no exit".
In "Fear of an Empty Life", after a stanza about the risks (to a contemporary poet's reputation?) of disclosing love and about the way we all follow in beauty's wake even while recognising such legislated fashions also shape our racial hatreds, Moxley writes:
It cannot, no matter, in verse, be real. Fucked up beauty
subtracts the awkward ugly plain ache of tripped-up memory stores
where I see you as a taut wing of fragile older skin whose pride
of effort flaps in an attempt to fly amidst its own disintegrating
structure, a sight so ridiculous that all but the buried are unable
to suppress their laughter and turn away.
If the home world is broken the ultimate flaw is within ourselves. We can make choices that lead towards further destruction or "towards maturity and knowledge", that "whole training in the possible", i.e., a wholeness tempered by limits inevitable and unequal in the real world but stretched and challenged by the imagination in art.
II. Engagements
"Fear of an Empty Life" concludes:
                            Tiny blindfold box of selfish stomach,
parasite life, the measure of a second is insufficient
to leave you behind, you and all your crippling indifference.
In "During This Revolution" (IV), Moxley poses and posses herself with Helena Bennett, the poem's dedicatee, as "us against the unbothered", and all the times we've turned opportunities down with 'I can't be bothered' line themselves up like ducks to be shot. In the same book "The Right to Remain Silent" declares, "If you can only live/ one life, you must die/ for those/ you throw away." In "The Second Winter", Moxley states that "Time instead must from indifference cull/ the matter of our abstract narratives/ to let them lie the necessary lie." She then goes on to ask what effect indifference to this world by its poets might have:
How will the world be finally pictured
should all the poets stop painting it?
The indolent weight of a minute's truth
will not by better bookkeeping shake its grief,
compassion itself is a formal trick
of reality's obscured footprint.
If indifference is the crippling disease, what healing there is comes through engagements with the roots, the sources of our cultural being: image; song; self and its passions - i.e., mythology; communities with their promises and failures - i.e., history. This is where Moxley takes us. The Aphrodite figure in "The Second Winter", catches herself weeping:
as though in this present I've nothing left,
no matter, no catalog, no poetry.
But Moxley provides engagement with all three: the matter of history, not least the history of our treatments of each other; a catalog, as in its Greek root, a reckoning; and poetry, as when she writes in her lucid and challenging Preface to Imagination Verses, that the poems "were written out of a desire to engage the universal lyric "I," as well as the poetic line, with all of its specific formal artifice." Moxley's engagements intend to provoke us to examine our lives and, if we lay claim to the calling of poetry, the integrity of our gift to the future. Moxley puts it this way in the Preface: "The poem offers a history of and a future for the mind's prerogative to exist as more than a memory of its milieus. It is a small but necessary intervention, a crucial and critical disjuncture." (Note: Moxley is not prescribing disjuncture as a poetic process to follow if you wish to be noticed as a postmodernist or a poet of whatever contemporary stripe, but is suggesting the poem will act as a disjuncture in the poet's and/or reader's life.) As a reckoning, we can see poetry as more than ornament, a "necessary intervention" for a decent future and for the future of decency, which terms imply both the small niceties of common decency and a deeper justice we can choose to live by. That rarity, 'common decency', lies behind a poem in Imagination Verses aptly entitled "Underlying Assumptions" and justly dedicated to George Oppen. The poem takes our world's received ideas of economic wisdom and, with craft, revolves them thus:
Left to believe what leaves the mouth
will turn a profit,
we stand reading

            detect a rumour of bills and hear
                        your voice
and recall

the pleasure of listening
the power of production
                        "what we commoners have won"
this page,
and all its underlying assumptions,
and know again
there's place for us, and such
a country.
(Note: the careful avoidance of the full cliche in the penultimate line by omitting the "a".)
Out of indifference, then, by way of engagement, but to where or what?
III. This Is As Whole As It Gets?
I have no wish to suggest that Moxley's is a utopian vision of poetry, rather to declare it a responsible poetry (in the sense of Robert Duncan's dictum, "responsibility is to keep alive the ability to respond"): alive to its roots and its future by way of authenticity in its present. In "Night Train to Domestic Living Arrangements" (IV), Moxley's universal lyric "I" says, after a tirade startled into being by the thought that she has been filed "beside compunction":
Do some dishes and get back to me.
I'm waiting at the ripping point
breast in hand, a broken spine
like any sign of care.
So, we begin again at the broken: and part of the maturity of Moxley's poetry is its readiness to begin again. A beginning that often involves clearing baggage, such as a lover's inability to care, out of the way. Moxley has from the start viewed revolution both in terms of the history of ideas and movements and in personal terms. The epigraph to her pamphlet The First Division of Labour reads, " . . . there develops the division of labour, which was originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act . . . " In Enlightenment Evidence, which in its rem press edition of 1996 carries on its title page, (Part two of Often Capital) a project since abandoned, Moxley writes:
                                                            real world man
let sweetness be the creator of moments, building revolutions
one kissing at a time
although the revolution and the love both fail, as these poems for Rosa Luxemburg conclude, "know/ what I have always planned for us/ has been by structured futures undone".
If Imagination Verses sets out to speak "the range of the heart" ("Home World"), on the way acknowledging, by direct comment or gesture of style a community of lyric poets - including Crane, Oppen, Heine, Susan Howe, Mayakovsky, Wordsworth and Keats with whom she creates collaborative sonnets, Frank Stanford, Elizabeth Willis, and Frank O'Hara - and holding hope at least ambivalently as in the book's final stanza where "Hope" springs alien, "blind as/ the first letter on the first stone/ written down/ as if a wreath to circle/ the last sound spoken/ on some distant, though similar/ Earth", then Wrong Life seems set to confront the poet-reader with the need to keep agitating the world and its received truths to reach a state closer to wholeness. (At this point, in walks Jack Nicholson to lean over Jennifer Moxley's shoulder, read a draft, leer and say "What if this is as whole as it gets?" Moxley's come-back look, "Yes, that's rather the point," withers even Nicholson.)
In "A Transom Over Death's Door" Moxley writes:
 . . . My hands are shivering, I miss the writing, I know what it has and has
Not given me, here where drawn out lives grow longer in false desires
Disturbing envy and multifarious revelations of bright recycled hope.
What the writing has and has not given. The Preface to IV anticipates this, "Being time-based beings, we cannot escape compromise, concealing history with each new life, born to begin the accumulation of knowledge from zero to one and so forth. Poetry is the frustration of such limits. As an art form, it is a bridge of half measures on the way to the possible . . . " In the final stanza of "The Easter Lesson", Moxley challenges directly:
Poet, at the mid-point of our life's journey the vault will set a block to entry,
young in thought the world, despite these apparitions of grace, shall abandon you
to its discrepancies. Can you manage the small acts of sacrifice
though they bleed the matter from your life? Can you doubt what you are risking
when, as the lynchpin of four thousand years, you choose to provide the limits?

Is she addressing Dante and asking why only nine circles . . .  or, asking her hearers to examine the suggestion we may not yet have gone much beyond Dante?
"A lovely and familiar gravity": the title phrase comes from the poem "From a Distance I Can See" in Imagination Verses. The gravity has been alluded to in its sense of seriousness. Equally important is the sense of that essential force which pulls toward the centre and holds together, not only the physical centre, but also the social nexus and so is vital for a civil future regulated by mutual care. "Familiar," as in well known or common, as in the myths which run through Wrong Life, but also in the sense of intimacy or close friendship. I find the familiar gravity in Moxley's work to be that it passes a test of authenticity, having the ring of a truth sometimes common, sometimes uncommon, but never easily achieved. The loveliness is in sight, sound and intellection. As Zukofsky prescribed.
In or near the Faubourg Poissonniere-Montorgueil arrondissements of Paris, four expatriates, three Americans and one Briton, gather over food and wine to discuss, mostly, poetry. Around midnight when it could be time for guests to be leaving, a second bottle of wine is produced and Ms Jennifer Moxley launches a question, about poetics, or poetry, a specific poet or poem, which stops thought of departure in its tracks. Douglas Oliver and Alice Notley step out into the 3 or 4 am Paris air, clearly delighted by their friendship with the younger couple. Friendship is a rarer and more delicate creature than history so I did not pry beyond these few details gathered during casual conversation in Vancouver this April. Oh, yes, plus the fact, to clear up my own misreading of signals during a very brief exchange of e-mails, that poetry matters to Ms Moxley; absolutely. "Lives it and breathes it."
The First Division of Labour, Rosetta; 1995
Enlightenment Evidence, rem press; 1997
Imagination Verses, Tender Buttons; 1996
Wrong Life: Ten New Poems, Equipage; 1999
The first two texts were written in the late 1980's; the third between 1990 and 1995 in Providence. Wrong Life, I take it, was written in Paris between 1996 and 1998. References in the article are to poems in Wrong Life unless otherwise stated.


Pete Smith coordinates mental health services to mentally handicapped adolescents and adults in the Thompson Region of British Columbia's Southern Interior. He is a semi-active member of the Kamloops Poets' Factory. Recent publications: 20/20 Vision with Wild Honey Press, Eire, 1998; brief book reviews in Nate Dorward's The Gig. A photo/text collaboration with daughter, Hannah Naomi, Neon Haibun recently ran at Xchanges Gallery in Victoria, BC.


J A C K E T  # 9 
Contents page 
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog |
 Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice
- Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose  | about Jacket |
This material is copyright © Pete Smith and Jacket magazine 1999
The URL address of this page is