Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jennifer Moxley, _Clampdown_

ANOTHER EXCELLENT VOLUME from Jennifer Moxley, although not a happy one. Does the title derive, I wonder, from "Workin' for the Clampdown," a song on The Clash's London Calling? Despite all the music's punch and energy, the song lyrics were mainly about the long, long odds against the success of any resistance mounted against the powers that be. Moxley's Clampdown too seems to be about struggles fought long and honorably, but not crowned by success.

Struggles to keep a marriage ("Mother Night"), the ideals of youth ("Clampdown"), the nation ("The Occasion"), and poetry itself ("Where to") alive and strong have left the poet exhausted and...well, not bitter, exactly, nor desperate, not even resigned, I'd say, but certainly tired, and wondering what she possibly could have left undone that things have come to this pass.

At the same time, Moxley seems to be pondering the strange fact that she is, in her world, famous. In an elegy for Robert Creeley, she writes:

We never think we'll outlive
the people we have chosen to believe
a necessary part of existence.
But we do.

After this thought comes the realization that she has become just the sort of poet for others that Creeley has been for her:

and then the final turn of fate: to find
that you yourself in midlife have become
another person's frail necessity.

There are not a lot of poems about the strange feeling of becoming a modestly successful and recognized poet, for the excellent reason that it rarely happens. Yeats comes to mind, but the lines at the end of Responsibilities ("While I, from that reed-throated whisperer") and "What Then?" mainly suggest how little the success, once attained, actually mattered. Moxley takes a similar tack. "The March Notebook," dedicated to Robert Kelly, almost seems to say that failure is the only success that matters (cf. Yeats, "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing," to say nothing of Dylan's "Love Minus Zero / No Limit"). "Our Defiant Motives," the volume's next poem, begin by asking --

And what if we succeed? Then what. What if we,
who are fond of thinking that our lives have been
hindered vigorously by scheming statesmen
and entrepreneurs -- scummy down to the one --
find ourselves out on a stretch of open sea
with none but a smooth trajectory
that looks to be of our own making?

Unlikely, but if it does happen, don't kid yourself that your success was all down to your own efforts and redeems the apparent injustice of the society we live in -- or so Moxley suggest in the fine-grained irony of the next two stanzas, which take the point of view of someone complacently assuming his or her own prosperity is sufficient proof that whatever is, is right.

And then the very next poem, "The Quest," sends the last nail on this particular coffin home with its epigraph from Jack Spicer ("The Grail is the opposite of poetry") and its uncompromising conclusion:

In the end, nothing is certain
except that those who seek their own
salvation will betray their brethren.

No workin' for the clampdown here, friends.

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