Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Because she is one of our smartest, as well as one of our finest, poets, Jennifer Moxley always offers her readers much to think about. At the end of her new book, the dazzling Often Capital, she’s appended a note that reads in part:

Most of Often Capital was completed by 1991 (though a few scattered poems were composed a little later than that). Why then have I not published it until now? Why then did Imagination Verses and The Sense Record come out in its stead? There are many reasons. For one, though these poems received early support in magazines and chapbooks through the generous auspices of friends, they never secured more than a small readership, perhaps in part because of the relative obscurity of [Rosa] Luxemburg outside of leftist circles. Once Imagination Verses was published, I was hesitant to bring out Often Capital for fear it would be perceived as my second book when in fact it had preceded the first. It was Steve [Evans] who suggested, while I was putting together the manuscript for The Sense Record, that, when finished, I turn my attention to finding a permanent home for this earlier work.

What one sees here is the trace of Moxley unfolding the public life of her poetry every bit as if it were the sequencing of a narrative. Literally, she is writing it, as such. And that she wants us, her readers, to understand this is indicated quite clearly not only by alluding to the earlier chapbooks (The First Division of Labour, 1995, and Enlightenment Evidence, 1996, represented here as the two sections of Often Capital), but by literally reminding us that this should be understood as first in a sequence, regardless of the order through which we actually encounter her books.

This of course fits my own personal bias for poetry over poems, with the concomitant notion that one’s lifework is best understood as a single overarching project, within which this or that individual poem is a component, never the whole. What’s not spoken in the passage above is that Moxley might perfectly well have chosen to issue Often Capital first, had a publisher actually offered to do so at the time. But she faced the very same issues of how to get the work out as a relatively new & unknown poet just like everyone else. It was only with the deservedly great response to Imagination Verses – the Salt Publications volume is a reissue, the original Tender Buttons edition having long since sold out – that Moxley found herself in the enviable position of being able to control, at least to some degree, what gets out & where with regard to that permanent archaeological record that grows up around books. Often Capital may be her third volume, but it is also the one that, being designated here as first, establishes that there will be narrative unfolding, the lifework of J. Moxley, poet.

Contrast this with Peter O’Leary’s description the other day of Ronald Johnson’s travails constructing ARK (all caps, O’Leary notes, a typographical insistence that one suspects will prove far harder to enforce than even the quotation marks Zukofsky always placed around “A”). Not only do we find Johnson initially plotting out a version of Radi Os that would have been 2,250 pages long, as the final dome over a project initially called WOR(L)DS, that only later comes to be known as ARK, and which appears sans canopy, excised now into the four-section project we know as Radi Os. O’Leary suggests that Johnson never intended to publish the five completed (but never printed) additional sections of the excised Paradise Lost project, even as he notes just two paragraphs above that it was part of the original project that was already ongoing when Johnson dug into Milton. Even tho O’Leary writes that

One of Ron's strengths as a poet is that he knew when to stop - that he was a stringent editor of his own work

the process his email portrays is that of a poet floundering, revising, struggling not only to write and complete the project itself, but to do so in some format that will cause somebody somewhere to publish the darn thing. And, unlike Moxley, Johnson’s work was never greeted in his own lifetime with the sort of reaction that enabled him to have much control over this part of the writing process. Indeed, ARK was finally published by The Living Batch, a press that died with its publisher a couple of years ago.

This is, I think, one of the hardest aspects for a poet to control. When I first published The Age of Huts in 1986, I told pretty much anyone who would listen that Ketjak, published eight years earlier, was itself a part of the original sequence. Yet between those two books came Tjanting, the project that was written after I completed Huts. So that when I tell people now that The Alphabet is really the third stage in a four-stage project, the first two of which are The Age of Huts & Tjanting, I know that it’s nigh on impossible for many readers to visualize. Unlike Moxley, I wasn’t smart enough at the time to note in the Roof edition of Huts its relation to Ketjak, let alone the relation of both to Tjanting. I still have hopes eventually of getting this all squared away, but the process alone makes me completely sympathetic to Johnson’s own struggles, and makes me heed – indeed, almost envy – just how well Jennifer Moxley has gone about setting the ducks in a row.