Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jennifer Moxley, _The Sense Record and other poems_

SO WHAT ARE we to make of this -- some poems in strict iambic pentameter, a couple of sonnets, allusions to classical myth, quotations from Wordsworth, Whitman, William Cullen Bryant (!), even syntactical inversion and rhyme ("Songs /unlike a virus have grown in this season / of record rare, they sound an echo long / in repose and leave conflicted reason / to its bafflement") -- and yet this is not a book by Gjertrud Schnackenberg.  It even seems in some ways 180 degrees away from Gjertrud Schnackenberg.

I bought this having been intrigued by Moxley's The Line, which had its elegances and symmetries but seemed plainly enough born of an out-there poetic that would have no truck with such traditional formal properties as turn up in The Sense Record.  And yet...those very properties end up seeming audacious in Moxley's hands.  Perhaps because she alludes not only to Wordsworth and Bryant but also to Verlaine, C├ęsaire, Creeley, and John Wieners, but even more because of lines like these from "The Ambition of Art":

[...] constructed oblivion laid out lettristic
in heavy regular beautiful beats, arc of an entreaty -- but I
hate this dream and I hate its vanity.

A simultaneous attraction/repulsion for traditional form is more interesting than either an attraction or a repulsion would be, or so it seems to me.  The same poem ends:

Not a slight adjustment in vision, nor a new world view,
nor tradition's exhaustion restored infinitum
nor the same old encoded line but... can I say it?
Will meaning suffice?  Notwithstanding our friendships
and family we drift, cut throats in quest of credentials,
yet the mind is the life that will die by consent 
to the hand but in strategy held, let liberty's pitfall
engulf us, if the night must fall then...

Why write poetry, why work so hard at it, why sacrifice other important human considerations to it, why anguish over whether it is good or not -- such questions hover behind the lines and are not answered so much as accepted, clearsightedly, without swooning, maybe a bit of melodrama but earned melodrama, I think, if there is such a thing, in a volume in which Moxley restores tradition without succumbing to it, deals out those same old encoded lines while knowing what she most wants is somehow beyond them.  In her skill in a medium she is not certain she trusts, she reminds me again, as in The Line, of Laura Riding.

I expect I will be returning to this book, especially for "The Ambition of Art," "The Second Winter," "Behind the Orbits," and most especially for "The Sense Record," from which I quote here:

Why must I alone account
for those I have known all too briefly.
To feel their psychic egress
I would as much deny
were it not for my suspicion
that built into intelligence
lies some strange quadrant
of a fractured Heaven
or Hell, an individual memory complex
stretched across the globe
vanished-existence maps
destroyed by the nonchalant amnesia
necessary to live.

Fractured... and cold and rook-delighting, perhaps?  What a surprise to find a whiff of the Yeatsian here.

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