Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Washington Review (old reviews): Jennifer Moxley and Jacqueline Risset (1997)

I published many reviews in The Washington Review, the fine D.C. arts and literary magazine that thrived through the 1990s and even, I think, into the early 2000's before finally succumbing. I’m going to reprint occasional reviews from that era on this blog when I have the time, because other than being in the old print issues of TWR, these reviews are probably no longer available. I’ve edited them a bit for style and phrasing, but otherwise want them to reflect the time and place of their writing.

It’s interesting to me how these old reviews show not only the different ways I thought about poetry some time ago, but show also the era of their composition, and the questions about poetics that were abroad and in play at that time.


Jennifer Moxley
Imagination Verses
Tender Buttons Books
P.O. Box 185
Stuyvesant Station
New York City, NY 10009
90 pgs., $8.95

Jacqueline Risset
The Translation Begins
Burning Deck Press
available through:
Small Press Distribution
1814 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702
96 pgs., $10.00

In contemporary avant garde poetry circles, very little can cause such extreme disagreement as a discussion about the value of lyric poetry. Is lyric poetry by definition the singing of a solitary voice which takes its own problems to be central? Is lyric poetry based on the idea that the human being is an autonomous, free individual who always has power to choose, and who forms all meaning, a notion that would imply that social power and cultural history play no major roles in who we are? Or are there ways of using lyric that suggest that people are formed as much in the connections between each other as in their solitary wills?

Such questions are very much foregrounded by Jennifer Moxley's excellent first collection of poems, Imagination Verses. When Moxley writes, in her brief preface, that her poems are "written out of a desire to engage the universal lyric 'I,'" readers need to understand that she is not reasserting the idea that lyric poetry consists of a series of isolated individuals singing their own lives. Rather, she is engaging the cultural dilemmas that such a notion reflects and creates. In so doing, Moxley strikes at the heart of the conscious ambiguity that lyric poetry can suggest at its best; that we are both isolated and connected, that we are not simply individual but nonetheless cannot speak for others. In Imagination Verses, Moxley struggles with the problem of how to find a perspective from which to write. Who is she when she writes as "I"? Her poems seem to ask who she is in relation to others, and how a lyric poem can help her understand that.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Imagination Verses is the way the ironic ambiguities of these problems reveal themselves in the crafted twists of her lines, as in the opening of the book's first poem, "Home World":

    I will say what the register calls forth,
    the range of the heart
    a journey in the strap of speech,
    unrealized, failing to grapple
    with even the first word,
    or world where I saw humans
    in the shadows of buildings
    unable to speak at all.

Here, the "range of the heart," which might seem a conventional lyric positioning of the individual as central, is ironized by the way the heart can speak only from the "strap of speech," from what "the register calls forth." Rather than speaking simply as herself, the poet can speak only from what the "register" of this speech will allow; by thinking of herself as centered on a metaphor about her "heart," the narrator is aware of how much she is leaving out. She has already assumed something that cannot be assumed, and she knows it. But she still wants to speak from the heart, however much she is aware of the limitations of doing so, and however much she has already failed. Not to do so would be to suggest that there was some other, less located possibility from which she could speak, and she knows that's a falsehood also.

What's remarkable about these poems is the way their sophisticated intellectuality is, in fact, so located. They don't read like a theoretical discussion of the problems of lyric poetry; Moxley is not simply investigating the history of the lyric, or analyzing the problems of language from a safely contained distance. Rather, her poems read as lyrics of moving personal intensity that nonetheless consciously embody theoretically sophisticated investigations of lyric. These poems show the poet living a life, but one in which thinking about what she is doing is as crucial as doing it, as she reveals in "Night Train to Domestic Living Arrangements":

    In my own mind you have put me
    beside compunction. Re-worked
    this mourning room where looking
    smacks of mother may I
    though to this day I'll falter
    when sleep holds sway.
    Throw me over your deep end
    with some faith next time,
    as if to lend some bother to the vex.

The problems that the narrator faces in these poems will be familiar to anyone well read in the history of lyric poetry; problems of desire and love, of the effect we have on others, of the narrator's limited abilities to make the wholesale social changes she often wants to make. That these themes echo the history of lyric poetry does not suggest traditionalism on Moxley's part so much as it suggests the flexibility that lyric poetry can offer in the present moment, in the hands of a writer willing to engage both its possibilities and its problems. While, at times, the twisting ambiguities of Moxley's poems feel so carefully crafted that they lack energy, even that lack seems not Moxley's unconscious failure to write with the passion of her existence, but a conscious understanding of the limitations of passionate conviction.

And there is, in Imagination Verses, a haunting sense of limitations. Much of the book confronts the very harsh reality of the world around her, with its political manipulations, legal robberies, and personal misunderstanding. Limits imposed by others, self-imposed limits, the limits of all that it seems not possible to act on--all these bring to Imagination Verses a deep sense of loss and sadness that is not quite, but just barely not, resignation. In the book's last poem, "Wreath of a Similar Year," hope emerges one more time, flitting in and out of focus among a landscape of mistakes and misunderstandings:

                As in the wake
            of awakening
        wrong attempts
            and wrongful death
        will fall adjacent
                careful Hope.

But, as the last stanza of the poem tells us, this Hope sounds "strangely of untold direction," and is "blind as/the first letter on the first stone/written down." This hope is as blind as even the first attempts to write it into poetry. As blind, that is, as any attempt to write into a poem the ironic depths of opportunity and despair that a conscious life faces when it touches the displacements of its connections.

Anyone wanting a further look at Jennifer Moxley's talents should check out Jacqueline Risset's The Translation Begins, recently published by Burning Deck, and which Moxley translates from the original French. Compared to the struggle for a fully-lived language in Imagination Verses, the poems in The Translation Begins can seem anemic. Indeed an abstracted, distanced lack of particulars, designed to resist representation and image, is at the heart of many other contemporary French avant garde poets, including writers like Claude Royet-Journoud and Jacques Roubaud. One can develop a taste for Risset's anemia, though, once one recognizes the complex shifts in her work. Although the bloodlessness is disturbing, it can be disturbing in a way that is often illuminating.

As Moxley points out in her "Translator's Note," Risset's work often centers on destabilizing patterns, patterns that often emerge from interplay with a series of "hermetic references." Moxley writes, "as soon as the significance of the pattern is recognized, the pattern itself is transformed and torn apart." Although the pattern of destabilizing patterns could easily itself become a too stable pattern, there is enough striking variance on the level of the line, and between lines, in Risset's work that one does not feel the presence of any overarching theoretical schema. There is surprise in these poems, and constant subtle ironies, as in these lines from "M.S. 1544", which do not offer anything to see, and even critique the idea that there might be a clear perspective from which something might be seen:

    the reverse--
    or the relation--
    knowing that everything--
    and if in you--
    you see--
    that seeing--

Still, in lines like "that the problem consists of/ torpid--the story...," from the end of the poem "Fiction," I find it too tempting to take Risset's comments as an accurate evaluation of some of the book. But the brilliance of her insights finally do win out over my skepticism, because Risset's work reveals a truly cunning destabilization that can even anticipate and diffuse potential criticisms of its sometimes anemic abstractions. As if in agreement with Imagination Verses, Risset's book suggests that conscious anemia is better than passionate conviction that doesn't know what it's talking about.

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