The Sense Record and other poemsJennifer Moxley, Edge Books 2002, 80 pp., PO Box 25642, Washington, DC 20007
firstname.lastname@example.org / www.aerialedge.com
Reviewed by Dale Smith
These poems are records—as the title indicates—of a life in poetry where, following Rimbaud, meaning and sensation find their fullest embodiment as single extension. Words record by formal arrangements the long and active duty to their soundings, contexts and histories. But that life, or attention, prior to art’s making, with compelling personal urges, insists there is to be found out some related form. Poetry is no picnic, and when life in it pursues or absorbs forms required at its urging, an original and surprising work can result to further a way through the limited box of our world, as it is.
Jennifer Moxley’s seriousness honors attention to form and life. Poems want that life—call it content—present in them. Experimental poetry is only the test of one’s abilities in language and an unflinching regard of the world. There is life too in form, or there’s nothing but vapid maneuvers. Complicating this is our own internal American pressures to behave in a public face, supporting ideas or ideals that inwardly crush us. Though we are not equal, we like to dream ourselves under a single roof. Moxley, here, in her admirable manipulation of formal expectations, scrutinizes her world by her own inner terms, complicating the political mess of democracy by testing the authority of poetic forms. In "Where Was I Going," she writes:
The book is the key, and I hold it.
What is the meaning of my wakeful state.
The finitude of my wishfulness daily pens
a new dread, should I rid myself of perpetuity,
my thought of future season, where past
is tranquility and companionship able
to make a picture of peace, the conceivable
universe will oblige these unethical motives
of paraded wisdom. Was it so easy
to be flung to heaven? Where was I going…?
The poem’s rich imagery, timed rhetorical disruptions and personal thematic investigation helps craft something reminiscent of Wordsworth or Yeats while practicing a verbal coherence closer to William Carlos Williams. A neo-Romantic use of her own noetic sources under highly compressed formal stanzas, with lines somewhere in the decasyllabic range, produce in tone and gesture something altogether useful now, more than ever, when contemporary poetics faces the paucity of the so-called new formalists at one extreme, and the hyptertextual frontier of free-space, free-range freer-than-free free verse at the other. (Others have abandoned the human entirely, of course, for machine-generated forms. What is chance, after all, but a mechanical sequence authored by eventuality). She recharges old forms by dismantling the archaisms and replacing them with her own uses of language. It’s lyric synthesis through a kind of dream narrative, only that dream world brings with it real questions of how to live here and now.
Her concerns are not with history, or so much with social practice. It’s difficult to locate an "issue" or context behind these reflective poems. "My poems are less concerned with narrative than with tracing an interior train of thought," she said in an interview last year. That train can be provocative, generous and surprising, but it can also haul a lot of unmarked cargo. Faith, finally, in meaning is evident, and meaning through form determines her greatest discoveries. Form is initiation.
Sometimes the forms—which, by the way, are mostly internal to the poem, rarely formally strict in the way of a sonnet—break down under the stress of compression. She reaches, sometimes too far to hit her point. Two sonnets, executed with mock perfection, poke fun playfully at the form. "The Critique," too, which to my ear registers Emily Dickinson, reaches a kind of contrived state, evident of that formal break down I mentioned.
I’d rather say "I shall not tell"
than tell you, in a noble lie
that all compassionate choices
must be stomached, and for a pinioned-heart
deserve our praise….
I gather this is at a level of writing where words like "noble" and "pinioned-heart" reference other work, and I understand the depth of formal penetration here, but I’m indifferent, in this case, to its game. If there is anything negative to say about the book, it’s that there is a quality of gamesmanship in these formal devices, verbal references and tonal quotations. Perhaps it’s my ignorance of all she’s up to here. I see Whitman’s words, feel Oppen’s presence, dutifully note with appreciation all that Williams and Stein offer through her language. I just wish there was a notebook appended with a list of her readings, quarrels and conversations.
The title poem, opening with a quote from Verlaine, is delightful, branded with Eros.
Under the threat of another light downpour
Eros, soaked by the rain-water,
spoke to the sentient flowers.
Sadness, no longer extraneous,
began the derangement of nerve,
bypassed the bleeding heart
to pierce the blood-brain barrier.
This all en route to the two-car garage.
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 fair brushed.
This funny and entangling opening delicately handles various poetic clichés and images with deft execution. The poem demands we take Art seriously by challenging formal expectations with verbal underpinnings, caprice and sudden forthright claims.
"Though puzzled and embarrassed
by your frank display of sentiment,
we think you are very brave."
Save this for the walls of fools
who cannot bear existence.
Reality’s heroism in an act of forfeiture.
The exhaustion of new forms.
The working parts of an abandoned machine.
"I didn’t particularly like the book
but fighting shy of argument
I said a few nice things about it."
Save this for the walls of fools
who cannot bear existence.
Near the end there is a distinction between tongue and word. The self-righteous acts above are seasoned now with reflection.
How many the unrecorded battles
registered upon the human brow,
the betrayed face that knows it’s the tongue
not the word, that is destined to fail.
Names, mostly, as I recall, are absent from the book. Instead, "I" shifts under the compression of forms, subtly transformed by the language constructing it. Moxley’s "I" unlike Creeley’s, say, extends by the registration of its formal environments. Creeley scrutinized syllabic values, finding "self" as a kind of wedge in words’ selective compromises. (Or perhaps "self" shows in "tongue," the mood of "I" absorbed in the force of words). Moxley’s "self" is not locus, but a passionate intelligence of trans-value, supplied to form as a tool of perception.
I wonder if anyone will regard The Sense Record as experimental or avant-garde in any way. Every poem that puts us on the line is an experiment. Moxley reinvests a formal poetics with the meaningful structures of her life’s complex environments: textual, personal, emotional, physical. Her formal uses create a tension of line and sentence, putting distance between "her" and the work. That emotional distance gives her greater freedom to explore the uses and limits of herself as it lives in language registered by form. The poems reflect that. We’re lucky to have such an attentively complex and backward-looking poet.
4 X 1. Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey and Habib Tengour. Translated by Pierre Joris. Artwork by Nicole Peyrafitte. Inconundrum Press, 92 Willett Street, Suite 1C , Albany, NY 12210-1031. www.inconundrum.com. The translations here form a kind of map of 20th century modernism. "I read to write," says Joris in his introduction. "The closest reading I have yet discovered is translation. Which is writing. And thus a circle or, hopefully, a spiral is set in motion." The work presented in this context shows new perspectives on four influential writers. Rilke's cold retreat into his blessed solitude is presented against Tzara's ethnopoetic Poèmes Nègres and the Algerian poet Habib Tengour's The Old Man of the Mountain. Joris gathers into English diverse threads of poetic attention, showing not only historical contexts for these translations, but maps to a spiritual geography of the imagination, to borrow a phrase.
Some Mantic Daemons. By Garrett Kalleberg. Futurepoem Books, PO Box 34, New York, NY 10014. www.futurepoem.com. I've been meaning to write about this terrific book for some time…and time slips away…and books pile up around me. Alas, this work is serious and moves with diverse intelligences—Angels—perceptive daemons. Language moves through concrete forms to make conceptual frames. The relating Angels of the book give it power, strength and the gifts to record, create and destroy. Is God DNA? The spirit a function of the cells? I'll end with the Gnostic inversions written in "Doxology on the Pipe Organule:"
Pigs have gods that resemble pigs.
Bulls have gods that resemble bulls.
I have a god who resembles an eye, a perception, a
point of view, an insight
into the souls of pipe organules.
And the animacules? the molechisms? the
possibles of life? all things
are possible, whose effects
are observable, whose observations
are repeatable, all things are measurable
in time or place. The high
as high is superior to the low as low,
as the light as light is—all values,
even the figures, are
perceptible, in some light—from
this height the eagles
and all the carbon-based systems
or systems of systems
gods of gods
even the monads
and any being that can, can sense
that something's going to happen.
There was a boom today.
There was a violent percussion and collision of one
body with another, whereby the matter they are
made of is attenuated and set in motion
and everything comes about by way
of strife and necessity. Can you feel it
in your skin? Being afraid is
nature's way of warning that fire
is dangerous, might harm us, that's what fear is
but sometimes when you become afraid
there isn't really anything to
be afraid of. And
looks like a rat
smells like a rat
talks like a rat,
but are they not all perceptions & possible or
recollections of perceptions in a repetition
of life in a rhetoric of life and so
themselves dissemble, says the god
of the rats on the stainless steel table.
Above which, a xeroxed sign reading
Undo Mistakes. (50-51)