Monday, July 02, 2007

No two books of Jennifer Moxley’s really seem remotely alike, so it’s no surprise that The Line feels like a radical departure not just from her last book, Often Capital – which is a “last book” only in terms of its publication date, having been written in 1991 prior to her “first” volume, Imagination Verses – but from every book she’s written. It’s as if Moxley decides to become, in some sense, a different person between each major writing project, so that the work that comes forward feels inevitable – The Line certainly does – but that the connections that come to mind for a reader aren’t necessarily back to her work as a historical record, but rather to the whole of literature itself, which is now being invaded & rendered problematic in some altogether new fashion. I can’t think of another writer who manages this sort of effect from book to book beyond, say, the later publications of Jack Spicer. But Moxley goes much further – there are continuities between, say, Language and Book of Magazine Verse that I think Moxley would reject on principle. Which is not to say that there aren’t continuities, but that you’ll have to read much deeper than a proclivity for a certain type of line break or sentence style to find them.

The names that kept coming to me as I read The Line over the past five days were Lydia Davis, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, Kafka & Borges. There is a revealing interview with Lydia in the new Poets & Writers that I’m not entirely done with yet & this weekend saw not one, but two reasonably fawning reviews of the new Merwin collection of short prose, a book that my first thumb-through invoked words like “flaccid” & “lifeless.” The Line plays with this same form of the self-contained prose work, often the apparent recounting of a dream, that one associates with several of these writers, but it does with a buzz-saw attitude that is unlike any of the above:

The Periodic Table

She was wearing a dress that looked like a book but actually was a baby. All of the letters were on her back to make room for her bulging stomach. I climbed through many foreign backyards in search of my bedroom window. I lived on
Ire Street off of Sport in room one hundred and ten. The mailbox was filled with paychecks or grade sheets, I couldn’t tell the difference. Is this my name or isn’t it? Pink, yellow, and white, a temporary carbon-based witness.
    I sleep with approximately 14,000 days sitting on my chest. A slow hour many years old pushes aside yesterday’s appetites and enters as a whisper through an unmuffled ear: “remember me, remember me, remember me!” And so the incantation continues until I open my eyes to find that I am changed into a patient on a table. Wait, it’s not me, it’s my mother. Men are taking her out on a stretcher. Oh no. Blood, blood, everywhere!

That’s not a poem I will forget anytime soon. It raises so many questions, starting with its very first word, She. Everything here makes me want to pull this imagery – part Alfred Hitchcock, part David Lynch – into a coherent whole, which is possible only if (as) She becomes I becomes my mother. The poem even asks the question: Is this my name or isn’t it? In doing so, it underscores what we already know, that these associations are superimposed & not at all “inherent” in the text itself. It’s as if Moxley knows exactly how to identify that razor-thin edge between what is in the language & what we bring to it. Again, Moxley knows we can’t read patient on a table without hearing Prufrock, but excising the aestheticized etherised from Eliot’s poem renders the present reader guilty at having imported the association. That Prufrock is, in addition to being brilliant, one of the most egregious uses of persona as appropriation only sharpens our sense of reading as complicity.

The tone of horror with which The Periodic Table – think of the implications of that title – ends is very much a part of this book, tho it appears through a variety of different registers:

The Pitiful Ego

Take yourself off of the market before you become an embarrassment. Last night, believing yourself to be the bomb, you stripped him of his T-shirt and kissed every spot on his slim hairless chest as if you were a famished child sucking on a piece of sugarcane in order to drain it of its last drop of sweetness. While you were thinking how grateful he must be he was silently plotting his escape. He lay on his back on the coffee table, feeling the cold touch of your old lips, his head cocked toward the door. A flock of boots and hairdos were giggling as they watched this. He pulled away and, leaving you with a grin of apologetic condescension, joined the youthful group.
    Moving to the end of the plush couch you pulled the flannel throw to your neck and shrunk down in humiliation. How could you be so stupid as to mistake deferential attention for ravenous sexual desire?

There is not a single word out of place in this piece, including sucking & cocked. But where the sheer horror of the referent comes through is in the impersonalization of boots and hairdos. They’re youthful because the impersonal can’t age, not having a body, whereas less than four dozen words separate you as famished child from you as old lips. The delicate balance of this prose pushes back in both directions – it’s not he that experiences ravenous sexual desire, the word before in the first sentence rings a loud bell of denial. We’re supposed to recognize the askew in each.

There is a ruthlessness in much great art that is unmistakable here – Pound’s despair in Pisa, Spicer’s love poems between pitcher & catcher, the rawness that Kathy Acker permits, especially in her early books. Tho both began their careers as writers in San Diego, Moxley’s work differs from Acker’s in that time or age is the potent condition that appears to trigger everything for Moxley, rather than sex. Each, however, is an arc bracketed by death & desire:

The Wrong Turn

Is it true that your memory and senses are enslaved to creative projects? Immaterial textual existence has come to claim your remaining years. A Faustian pact? Lay there and think about it. Sleep and worry. You’ve been taken in by a fast-talking salesman and won’t see your money again. On the cartography of your aging body a new nodule has suddenly appeared which definitely augurs death. A clarion call at the cellular level. Such are the melodramas of
midnight, the punishment for assuming the many your master instead of the missing necessity. Why does this poem exist? Nobody knows. But it seems to be mourning the ideal.

There is a wistfulness to the end of this poem that echoes, for me at least, the work both of John Ashbery & Rae Armantrout. So often Ashbery’s works, particularly his best writing, appears to come around almost cyclically to certain themes as if he had a “catch & release” policy on meaning. With Moxley, the hooks, once in, stick, so that the “innocence” implied in the final sentence, the idea that a poem might aspire to an ideal, comes across much more starkly because the counter terms (aging body, death) have so many heavier connotations lumped upon them over the course of this book. Where Ashbery always seems to deflect or turn away from conflict, Moxley here is digging in, refusing to blink & refusing to let you blink either. It’s no accident that this volume of prose poems is called The Line, for what is the line to poetry? It’s the measure of time, ergo the measure of death. What does it mean to write a book of prose poems and call it that?

The Line is the kind of project that, had it been published by FSG, would have been nominated for all of the awards. And it’s the kind of project that, were Jennifer Moxley to repeat this book five or six times, would ensure her a franchise as one of America’s best writers. Yet the most predictable thing about her work is that the next book is going to be completely different. Completely compelling, completely crafted, completely courageous, but utterly different nonetheless. All you can do is strap yourself in and get ready.