Monday, June 20, 2005

Rosa Luxembourg’s grave


I am often surprised at just how little poets seem to know of what they are actually doing. There are many brilliant poets, some of the absolute best, who seem strikingly incapable to saying anything intelligible, let alone intelligent, about their own work. Others may have that capacity, but prefer to hide it behind a cloying veil of coyness that is supposed to come off as a cute form of humility – that is almost always a disaster. Jennifer Moxley’s straightforward & wise “Afterword” to her new book, Often Capital, is so exceptional in this regard that it positively jumps out at you. As I noted the other day, Moxley positions this book with regards to her later volumes. But she does quite a bit more than that in six short pages – she explores both texts’ origins in the life & letters (specifically, the love letters) of Rosa Luxembourg, the German Marxist who co-founded the Spartakusbund, which would evolve into the Communist Party of Germany, and who was murdered following the collapse of the 1919 attempted revolution in Germany; she discusses differences between the texts & her relationship to them, both at the time of composition & more recently, as well as contexts in her own life as they relate to these texts.

The reason to read Often Capital, however, lies not in its afterword, but in the poems themselves. Here, for example, is the first poem in the first sequence, “The First Division of Labour”:

how given chorus

       a she complete

alleged      fair and castor
a fool

donned ritual, this year’s bouy’s
to Brontë, or avant committal

read him tied,

contained       bound and white

here is a great leader, a lullaby
to be kept

if and Narcissus straddled the lake

And here is a poem – perhaps one might think of it as a section – of the book’s second & last sequence, “Enlightenment Evidence”:

the rumor, it isn’t merely a fond perception

but the celebration of manly kind,

underground living made you monstrous Leo, a forgetter,

notorious evasion floats above

fucking day to day, the supposed hours flourish

they are stone-like in memory,

while opening words and walks display evaporation

hence the lady’s journal, hence the letter entreating,

for even I don’t remember my over life anymore

erector though I was, and you quiet hours of dawn

where is your confirmation now except

in everyone’s mouth

I should note, I suppose, that this second poem is not necessarily as representative of its sequence as “how given chorus” is of the first – many of the texts in “Enlightenment Evidence” use long lines, so long – and with “runover” syntax – that one is perpetually having to decide “is this a linebreak or is this in prose?” (Yet in every case, I think the answer is the former, for reasons that will become apparent.)

Both texts are derived from the same general material & reflect Moxley’s concerns – the tension between political commitment & personal desire – yet the resulting poems are very different. Of this, Moxley herself writes:

Finally, the writing of these poems was not simply an exercise in conceptual or emotional inquiry. It was also, perhaps more importantly from the standpoint of my development as a writer, an apprenticeship in form. In The First Division of Labour I wanted to tape the word, to give it depth and resonance, to open it like a floor-hatch and walk down through its etymological history. In section two, Enlightenment Evidence, I left the isolate word behind and concentrated all my efforts on the line.

I have no doubt that this is completely accurate from the standpoint – love that word – of the poet, but it’s not how I experience it as a reader, exactly. The distinction between what one might see in these very different roles intrigues me. I don’t, for example, read the sequences as word vs. line so much as I do between two alternate models of the line. In the first, the line coalesces around the tension between word & line or between word & phrase, but it is the line one reads, that flow through the words, ultimately.

In the second, the tension has shifted & coalesces now between the line & syntax – as a reader I’m constantly having to negotiate a decision as to which takes precedence, a minute, even nano-distinction that creates something of a foreground, background sensation. Indeed, I think that tension lies at the heart of what makes both types of line inherently interesting, it is a kind of depth.

It makes me wonder if this is something that is particular to Moxley’s work, or maybe even just this book, or isn’t, in fact, something that occurs in much – part of me really wants to say all – good writing. It’s clearly something that doesn’t occur in all writing per se – indeed, the metrical line of the closed-verse stanza seems constructed around a desire to keep it out, which may be why that model of verse now seems so narcoleptic.

My mind turns to other instances of inherently interesting line use – Olson almost invariably is the model here for me, the prosody of his long lines in particular is something I can explore for hours if I let myself take the time.¹ I think of Oppen, however, as somebody who – at least during the years in the 1960s & early ‘70s – preferred a deliberately flattened line. This is not, however, what one finds in Discrete Series, his very first book. Not surprisingly, I still think of Discrete Series as Oppen’s very finest work, although the later books at least through Of Being Numerous are themselves superb – it’s just that they lack this one added dimension.

So I find this depth-effect, this tension, is a feature in Olson & in Oppen’s Discrete Series, but might not be in Oppen’s later work. It’s always there in Rae Armantrout’s poetry, yet in Robert Creeley’s it’s more pronounced in the early work than in the late – that might even be a defining difference between those periods in his poetry. It would be interesting – but time consuming – to go back & reread everything -- the whole damn library – with this in mind. In Moxley’s case, I think it must have been her various foci that caused it to rise up like this, to occur in both parts of this book, but in such very different ways that she’s made the effect perceptible to me really for the first time. So in addition to some great poetry, I want to thank her for this gift.


¹ & the implicit logic of so many of his poems starting out with very long lines, moving gradually towards very short ones, operates with that minute pause at every linebreak to articulate a discourse that perpetually is moving faster throughout the course of the poem – it’s hard not to hear the emotional narrative in that, even when Olson’s discussing something largely abstract or obtuse.