Rev: Clampdown

Issue #110
Winter 2009-10

Clampdown, by Jennifer Moxley (Flood Editions): A few decades ago Jennifer Moxley might have been called a “coterie poet”—her low celebrity wattage within the larger galaxy of American letters contrasts starkly with the deep respect and loyalty she inspires among a relatively small number of serious readers and fellow poets. Her work appears in hard-to-find periodicals, and small, highly specialized presses produce her books. She has avoided getting any of the more conspicuous prizes and has appeared in Best American Poetry exactly once. Nonetheless, for some, each addition to her steadily growing oeuvre is an event.

Moxley has, it is true, made the seemingly fashionable gesture of publishing a memoir (The Middle Room, 2007), but did so at unfashionably 19th century length (633 pages) in a style of equally unfashionable, almost Jamesian grace and complexity. Most unfashionably of all, and unlike the many poets whose memoirs leave the impression that the author would never do so peculiar a thing as write a poem, Moxley identifies herself as a poet from the first page, and her vocation as a poet is the spine around which the book organizes itself.

Like her earlier book The Sense Record (2002), Moxley’s new collection, Clampdown, demonstrates the power of that vocation by its binding together of the strengths of two quite different, even antithetical poetic traditions. She explicitly aligns herself with what we might call the Other American Canon: Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Robert Kelly, John Ashbery, James Schuyler. (Moxley’s imitations in Clampdown of Schuyler in his “The Morning of the Poem” vein provide more insight into his work than most critical commentary.) Yet while her poems inhabit the sensibility and breathe the air of the loyal opposition—the Objectivists, the New York School, the Language poets—she consistently uses closed forms, regular stanzas, and end-rhyme; even in her free verse poems one feels a steady iambic undertow. Her syntax is articulated and whole. Somehow there is never anything antiquarian or curatorial about Moxley’s use of these resources; she never sounds anything but contemporary. If the claim of Cole Swenson’s and David St. John’s new anthology, American Hybrid, is correct, and the characteristic American poetry of the present comes from the crossing of hitherto isolated strains, then Moxley’s work makes an excellent case in point—and in fact the volume contains ten of her poems. “Hybrid” is perhaps as useful a metaphor as one can find, suggesting as it does not a split-the-difference, middle of the road compromise, but a new thing formed from distinct traditions that have been ingeniously braided and fused.

The music of traditional lyric forms one strand in her braid, their political engagement another. We often call a poem “political” when it is simply a pained reaction to the evening news, but Moxley does not stop there. “The Occasion,” we could say, dissects the very having of those pained reactions and weighs what difference they may or may not make. Set in 2003, “a few days after the start of the war,” the poem begins by noting the flags that have sprouted in the neighborhood and the sudden increase in available information about Iraq, “the typical history lessons” that become available about countries we have long ignored “whenever the Empire looks stealthily down / upon a spot of old earth with trumped-up / salvation in mind.” The war dominates the evening’s conversation among the speaker, some friends, and a visiting poet, who share their anger at their unwilled complicity in their government’s actions (“our impotence was a red ball and it grew large / and organic between us”) and their bafflement by the immensity of what they do not know (“there was also the issue / of our ignorance, which was green, a green wall / that magically formed into a labyrinth / around us”). As they wander this maze, they all agree on at least one thing: they dislike the display of flags. Or almost all agree—this condemnation of the flag-flyers is elitist, someone objects, coming from privileged, educated types like themselves, who “did not understand / the deeper meaning of these seemingly / alien lives. Our very faith in our own / understanding made it by definition a fault.”

We begin to see that the poem is not only about the Bush administration’s arrogance, but also about many kinds of claim to authority and power. Who can speak for whom, or pronounce upon whom? Whose words matter, whose do not? But then, against the seeming futility or presumption of a group of intellectuals discussing the war over late night wine—with similar collocations likely occurring in every university town in the nation—Moxley intersperses lines from Genesis 18, Abraham’s bargaining with the Lord over the fate of Sodom. Do not the efforts of fifty, or thirty, or even a mere ten people towards justice make at least some difference?

Clampdown similarly mulls over the writing and reading of poetry—to speak of another case in which a handful of diehards may well wonder what difference their efforts make, swallowed as they are in the much larger noise of mass culture. Besides naming and imitating poets who have mattered to her, she explores what it means for a poet to come to matter for readers. In the elegy “In Creeley’s Wake,” for instance, she observes, “We never think we’ll outlive / the people we have chosen to believe / a necessary part of existence,” and goes on to note that she has become for others what Creeley was for her: “and then the final turn of fate: to find / that you yourself in midlife have become / another person’s frail necessity.” What is the nature of that authority, that power? “Our Defiant Motives” wonders what the prizes, should they arrive, would mean:

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?

Whatever it looks to be, the rest of the poem unsparingly advises, do not believe for a second the capitalist myth that your talent and hard work made success inevitable—the talents and hard work of writers who live and die unrecognized may be every bit as real as yours. The writers described in “The March Notebook” (dedicated to Robert Kelly) win no prizes and eventually are not even fashionable among those who disdain fashion (“Suddenly / they will find themselves waking up / on the wrong side of everything”), yet their lifelong struggle with words and meanings still stands as a lonely, austere accomplishment. “The Quest,” with its pointed epigraph from Spicer (“The Grail is the opposite of poetry”), likewise dismisses any complacent identification of fame with real achievement. “The lie is that we’ll recognize the winners / beforehand, that beautiful souls destined / for happiness appear all set about with stars,” it begins; it ends, “In the end, nothing is certain / except that those who seek their own / salvation will betray their brethren.”

As in any great volume of poetry, the poems of Clampdown gain from being in each other’s company. Taken by itself, “Hibiscus” is a neat example of rhyme and common meter used to surprisingly contemporary effect. Since it is a dialogue between two showy, pampered flowers over who should give precedence to whom, it seems also to comment wittily on the theme of gamesmanship in the poetry world. Since it is about a generational conflict as well, it resonates with the poem that follows, “Mother’s Day.” “The Logic of Survival” links up with “The Occasion” in its critique of our country’s military adventurism by invoking Odysseus, armed enforcer of patriarchal succession, and Aeneas, armed founder of an empire; simultaneously, by invoking Oedipus, it links up with “The Quest” in its critique of no-quarter, king-of-the-mountain style infighting for literary eminence.

Clampdown recalls the Yeats of Responsibilities (1914) in several ways: its evocations of the companions of the poet’s apprentice years (Yeats’s “The Grey Rock” Moxley’s “Clampdown”), its reflections on childlessness (Yeats’s “Pardon, old fathers,” Moxley’s “Mother’s Day”), its ambivalence about fame and recognitions (Yeats’s “While I from that reed-throated whisperer,” Moxley’s “Our Defiant Motives” and “The Quest”), its political engagement, its utterly persuasive marriage of traditional form to modern idiom. Responsibilities opened Yeats’s great mature phase; there is no knowing, of course, whether Moxley is on just such a threshold, and in any case such idle predictions are exactly the sort of poetry-as-horserace thinking that much of Clampdown condemns. If she keeps writing books this good, however, she is probably going to have to deal with honor and recognition, whether she likes it or not.—Scott Stanfield is a professor at Nebraska Wesleyan College and the lead singer and songwriter for the band Prairie Psycho.