Brian StefansJennifer Moxley's Wrong Life
Cambridge: Equipage, 1999

by Brian Kim Stefans


Jennifer Moxley seems to have turned a corner with her new chapbook of ten poems, Wrong Life. While some of the levity and “moral exhibitionism” (in Benjamin's phrase, describing the early days of Surrealism) of her first collection, Imagination Verses, is still present, it is muted beneath newer concerns with a sort of neo-classical pitch, giving some of the poems a late-classical/early-romantic quality, as if coming from the moment when that shift in poetic sensibility occurred (evinced perhaps best in the work of Coleridge). If these poems can be seen as “lyrics,” they are not departing directly, or solely, from more obvious twentieth century sources such as Frank O’Hara or Beat poetry, nor are they indebted to college workshop poetry or poetry of the “mainstream,” with their often imprecise, unexciting rhythms, images, and ranges of liberal humanist values. But despite their formal concerns–a sort of deep flirtation with the norms of patriarchal tradition–these poems are not “New Formalist” or in any way resembling the kitschy appropriations of a poet like Jacqueline Osterow, who writes humorous, often virtuostic, work in Dantescan tetrameter (but who, unlike Eliot, has no visionary grumbling to add to it); in fact, they rarely stick to any given form, borrowing only the allure of ascetic restraint from such regularity. Moxley, part anarchist and part watchmaker, has no interest in facility for facility’s sake, and if anything chooses paths that trouble her writing rather than show off its endless applicability to life’s daily quandaries. Because the ten poems of Wrong Life fix themselves at this turning-point between a sincere interest in the perfect, platonic forms of Classicism and the spontaneity of Romanticism–a careful reader of literary tradition, she is probably aware of this language game–they also find a place somewhere between late-Modernist ideas of the lyric and what may come next.

        Imagination Verses , published in 1996, sent a useful signal to many writers that it was time to write “lyrics” again, poems that are spontaneous, subjective (ie. autobiographical and emotive) and “musical,” discarding for the meantime whatever discoveries in form, rhythm and vocabulary that such movements as Dada, Objectivism, Projective Verse and Language Poetry have put forth. The book itself, however, was more than this, and was aware of a wide range of writing–from Duncan's better “Passages” poems to Hart Crane’s soliloquies in “The Bridge,” from Keats to Hejinian–which it displayed in careful, idiosyncratic ways. Like Lee Ann Brown in Polyverse, Moxley showed herself to have acquired a wide range of methods for writing a contemporary "lyric," though she wrote with little of Brown's freewheeling mentality (if anything, she could at times be considered over-earnest or sententious). While this signal for a return to the lyric has become fruitful, one wonders where this dusty image of the “lyric” that people rose to defend and hold against "postmodernism" came from, as if there were a lyric before modernism that anyone felt close to. It became easy to equate the “lyric” (which, again, had never entirely disappeared even in the most constructivist of poetics, Charles Bernstein being a great lyric poet when he’s not goofing off) with a sort of spontaneous, "Whitmanic" perhaps, effusion, a stage for the charming enactment of an emotionally enhanced but destabilized life–a sort of “Drunken Boat” Lite, or O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” again and again. Some of these newer concerns of the lyric were with the trope itself, ironically an extension of collage poetics which the subjectivity of the lyric should have opposed–perhaps Berrigan's Sonnets is the model for this type of writing. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and it is sort of refreshing in a Novelle Vague way, like those characters of Godard who found their best moments shooting cap guns in empty wheat fields while quoting Saint-Just to the panoptic gaze of capital. But it seems more interesting, now, in the time after the waning of deconstruction, and in the middle of one of the most conservative periods of American history, to work past the collaged trope, not to mention our special "American" slacker brand of existentialism. Though one could hardly call Imagination Verses “influential” at this point, nor give it all the credit for this situation which, if nothing else, is creating a lot of new poets and a more genuinely engaged poetry culture than has been seen here for a decade, the difference of Moxley’s lyric with some developments in poetry at that time (the mid-nineties, when experimental poets of her age were often latter-day Language writers or working through these influences) and ours (when they are very much not) is worth noting, partly because of her specific concern with tradition itself.

        Moxley’s tradition is not The Tradition–the European canon, the centrality of “clear expression” in lyrics, hierarchical moral values resting on patriarchal dominance, Oedipal altercations with the Masters, etc.–which it is more or less ok to ignore (certainly since Cage, whose challenge to Western notions of “tradition” have yet to be assimilated). It has more to do with the feel of a “tradition,” or a personal tradition which one controls and occupies, which is a fairly fresh concept these days. It is most interestingly understood as distinguished from “lineage,” a more popular construct in use as a shorthand to discuss new work by poets. This tradition could be seen as one’s personal sense of an accumulating store of methods and ideas, not to mention literary personas, that could be used when writing a poem, and which take one out of the immediate fashions of one’s time into something more purely imaginative (rather than repetitive or reactive), or universal (rather than contingent). Whereas “lineage” implies an adherence to one’s demographic peers or to one’s country, or to a certain literary identity that is shaped by the last few generations of poets, a tradition, even one provisional and idiosyncratic, is a thing that would provide a window on the history of literature, such that one’s responses and appreciations are not entirely horizontal on a temporal plain, nor localized geographically. This tradition–again, one among many, a private culture of sorts, with its own martyrs, scabs and revolutionaries–forces one into a position of taking all the writing in one's immediate surroundings as part of a transient historical moment, and not the inevitable, overdetermined product of history. In this way, tradition is not just the process of working along with one’s past, but of breaking out into one’s time away from the immediate present, a more dynamic sense of working with the language at large. While The Tradition could be seen as a form of socialization, the use of a “tradition” can be used to desocialize out of one's immediate sense of “lineage,” not to mention one’s own immediate political, social or economic milieu. With the stage set across such wider plains–something only an ambitious poet would set out to do–the possible resonances of the language, its words, meters, even symbols, increase, but also the pressure to behave in a manner that does justice to the wider aperture, as the desire for “form” becomes opened up to the entire history of forms. The principles of constructing the "right" form is elevated to those levels usually granted the word.

        In any case, Wrong Life seems to anticipate how the first book, in its confident march into the "lyric", may be read too loosely, something of a parallel to Pound and Eliot's decision to write in quatrains (in Mauberley and the Sweeney poems) to stave off the negative effects of too-free free verse. That is, Wrong Life develops from Imagination Verses in a way that draws a line both for and against the lyric in the contemporary scene. Her immersion in "antique" modes of address (a use of rhetorical stylistics not unlike Lisa Robertson's in Debbie: An Epic, and often as ironized) suggests that she is projecting a seriousness about the artifice of lyric that few would be able to follow. Each line of the poems in Wrong Life is not there merely to set the stage for the possibility of a following line, or to suggest the sort of virtuosity in which the poem lasts as long as the batteries are juiced. Rather, there is the lingering sense that the first line of the poem contains, implicit within it, the last line (a very classical idea), even in the last poem of the sequence, which is a translation. In terms of language, none of the opacities and freed signifiers of early Language poetry, or the objectified and reduced “self” of the nouveau roman or the iconography and contortions of Surrealism are present; it is practically a stand against the “tradition” of modernism itself, perhaps the only book of lyrics in recent times perceptive enough of aesthetic strategies to clearly attempt this. All version of linguistic fracturing having been bound together, or spackled over, with a knotty, baroque rhetoric, not to mention an unapologetically over-dramatized fiction of the self. It’s this lack of apology that permits Moxley to take on The Tradition with open eyes, and hence create a poetry that is unaffected despite its celebration of artifice, a celebration that occasionally borders on kitsch, like in the novels of D'Annunzio, but with, again, a saving, subtle irony that is unique to her writing and often misread.

        One thing that seems to be happening in Wrong Life is that the soil for a new poetic subjectivity is being tilled, the mise-en-scene orchestrated to such a degree that the “subject,” that creepy, wounded thing that is (or was) the social actor, must surface when the immense pressures of this historical stage bear down strong enough as to produce a faint cry. Judith Butler’s revision of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in The Psychic Life of Power seems relevant here, as Butler describes how “power” precedes the “subject,” and yet it is this power which “enacts the subject into being.” The subject, then, wields the power herself, hence reversing the traditionally viewed chain of causality, so that, finally: “Agency exceeds the power by which it is enabled.” By setting the stage in this way, Moxley–like all good poets concerned with a disciplined form of writing–gives herself a motivation to maneuver out of easy solutions to emotional and aesthetic dilemmas. Ironically, then, it is not improvisation–a footloose attitude toward life, line and syntax–that becomes the sign of agency, but the reversal of power which can only become present in the midst of a tradition, its symbols, tropes, figures.  This is from “The Second Winter”:

In dejection I leave for the island
of Lutecia. Selfish traveler
should I, I wonder, record the fatigue?
Opening lines aside, my exhaustion
is no more chronic than when my lover's
ribbon of pain hung from my blistered ear

sad anemone red flutes of morning
to penalize my narrow faith in Spring.

While the levity of some of her earlier poems is still apparent here (“Opening lines aside” has some of the self-reflexive humor of Ashbery), not to mention the “exhibitionism,” the control of the lines, nearly pushing iambic pentameter but crossing into balladic meters, shows that Moxley has gotten past the idea of an oppressive tradition and found, instead, that a "tradition" provides an interesting way of gauging the particular qualities of her own time. Her “exhaustion” is the well-earned one of finding oneself at the pinnacle of a (symbolic) history, and of having once had a “narrow faith” (“Spring” being, perhaps, a socialist democracy itself) that burned intensely, but is on the verge of disappearing, most likely beneath bureaucracy, technoculture, and the ease of exchange–capitalist, interpersonal, literary–on the market. However, this poem, by posing as a product from before the modernist break, is also free of the trappings of Surrealism, of the dream-life bursting into the waking which is still somehow behind the methods of nearly all experimental American poetry, yet a relationship to the situationist-side of Surrealism remains. Moxley seems to reconfigures this "burst" not as from the dreamlife (of analogies, metaphors, aphasic fracturings) but as a ghost of the past, from the history of forms. The poems, thus, do not assault the reader in classic avant-garde style, but create a recognizable contract, one that itself is a literary artifice, is a little musty and strange, like the description of an interior in Dostoyevsky. In this way, Wrong Life isolates and make clear the truth that hostility itself was or is often an aesthetic component of modernist writing, justified perhaps by political concerns and the effects of “alienation,” but which has taken on its own life as a valorized aesthetic effect, whether it be in Wyndham Lewis, Mayakovsky, Bruce Andrews or Tim Davis (or myself). How many poets could be said to have legitimized hostility as an artistic tactic? Moxley’s particularly unique ventriloquist’s act–the promise of acclimation without the threat of assimilation–as a side effect of its turn on modernism from within avant-garde concerns, makes this idea visible. 

        The very movement of the final sentence of this excerpt from “The Second Winter” over five lines dramatizes Moxley’s desire to achieve an elaborate wholeness, a singular measure, even if only provisionally and as “exhibition.” If one were to permit an over-used metaphor from our French peers, one could imagine the "Second Winter" being the record of a trek across the white expanse of the page, like an Alpine hiker leaving the first footprints across a "virgin" expanse of snow; in this case, the slowness of the gait, and not anything in the "content," would be the sign and value of her struggle. Her clever rewrite, or sustained echoing, of “Zone,” which she titles “Soleil Cou Coupe” (the final three words of Apollinaire’s poem), seems, in some ways, an elegy for the revolutionary moment, while at the same time it tries to signal a birth–not of the “new” but, perhaps, of the coherent or synthetic poem, or even the "iconic" in the sense of the poem having some of that magical quality that Benjamin was so interested in rediscovering in modern life:

You hurry home at dusk but fall upon a dead bird by the side of the road,
tiny pink featherless neck, sun throat slashed. From the writing desk

the workers bear witness to the destruction of your mental hideaway,
but the fight you in your imaginary thoughts

provoke in them proves nonetheless impossible to speak of...
You grow weary when you realize the old world will not stay new for long
and even the dead men interrogate you, the ugliest among them
fills you with anguish and longing. They would rather look
upon the flames of your funeral pyre from out at sea than abandon
the will of their fathers. You like to suppose you will never love again.

The “mental hideaway” is a recurring theme in this book; indeed, Coleridge’s “Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” seems to be a guiding light to some of Wrong Life’s tone. But she also reveals, in this excerpt, some of the pleasure and fraught humor of being someone attentive to the “old”; she is looking to it for things it is fairly ill-equipped to be, which is the new. One could say that Pound wanted the old to be new, but Pound could proceed upon a project like his translation of the Seafarer with the confidence that some of the effects of Anglo-Saxon meters and sound-patterns would resonate in the public ear with the cacophonies of Vorticism and Futurism; he also had a much less globalized cultural world to deal with, so some of his "old" from, say, the Chinese could actually enter with the freshness of the new. It is quite different for Moxley, who is aware that the "new" is a borrowed terms–the “new” having been recycled as a revolutionary prefix for, well, at least a century. It is attention to formal necessity, even if its of a very “old” sort, along with the gaze of a tradition which she chooses to figure as whole (at least as a history to fetishize) that demonstrate Moxley’s consideration of the challenge of Language poetry to our time. She’s taking the methods of the “methodist poets” and turning them upside down, if one divorces the term “process” from any sort of automation (dice-throwing, computers, Oulipian tactics, etc.) entirely and brings it over into the camp of “craft”. But ironically, it is Moxley’s play on “Zone” that strikes one, at least initially, as most indebted to a paratactic sensibility, as if the attempt to make the new out of the “new” via the mannerisms of the “old” required a confrontation with the immediate past, or at least suggested a new use for it. It is this unique dealing with the legacy of the recent avant-garde–an adopting, absorbing, sifting, judging, and occasional expulsing, all processes emphasizing choice–along with her freedom to be “untimely” that places her writing in that between-place, that crisis moment of the Kuhnian "paradigm shift," that is coming after our already academically-exploited, though somehow barely understood, "avant-garde" present. (There are, of course, several possible futures, as there are several presents, all of them exotic, which, even if they are mostly undiscovered, poets will have to continue to strongly imagine against our increasingly heavy, burdening corporate monoculture.)

        “A Transom Over Death’s Door” concerns this bind of having followed the idea, or ideal, of collective action from within a collective state of imagination and then of having lost this ideal, perhaps because of a relationship to a "tradition" or something else that subtracted her from easy class and cultural identities. That is, as a younger poet with a somewhat polemic bent and in a milieu not aware of a clear future (her period at Brown, when she was editing The Impercipient), Moxley attained something like “leadership qualities” along with a set of goals for her poetry that she envisioned of value to many others (the “emergent” generation in Steve Evans’ phrase) but which may have turned out to be her own specific dream: once I was a little girl
With no ambitions but seduction until I chanced to overhear

The future, one language fitting into the next, class the common
Element, in which all futile desires quiet away in similar forms
Of loneliness and frustration, in what pursuit?

What is at stake is the forming of a coherent personal and political platform that takes, as its generative principle, the idea of subjective wholeness and true, informed agency, such that leadership could be, in some not attenuated way, possible. The complexities of authority in a radical conception of democracy become key, since the need to find authority in such a poetic “voice”–a “Homeric” one, in Pound’s sense, in that all of tradition could conceivably be funneled through it–leads back to one’s misgivings about (paternal) authority. But in this “late stage of capitalism” the “authority” seems to be the impersonal exchanges of a faceless body politic and an incomprehensible economic interdependence that supercedes the relationship of the individual to the other, or to the "State," this latter a relationship that, presently, has an almost antiquated “folk” quality when it’s spoken of, as if one needs to be a farmer or a grassroots worker to understand it.  That is, the authority is the spectacle, and though there are defenders of the spectacle, they are hard to isolate from the spectacle itself (and have a squadron of corporate lawyers to keep it that way). So then how does one lay out the principle of the contradictions, dissatisfactions, even criminality, of capital without disappearing into a purely strategic, critique-oriented poetics that is destabilizing, and which, in its pure formalism, has lost the ability to imagine an audience? Will the text ever be able truly to step down from its authoritative role over the reader, and if it can’t, should it not, then, acknowledge the reader by, perhaps, oppressing him/her with attention, coercion, beauty, and even false notes (the "antiquated" langauge) about values, with the hope that agency will spring forth?

        Moxley’s psychic battleground, and her determination to make our sense of contemporaneity waver, to array something of the past against the present, doesn’t provide all the answers, but it’s a start, and this chapbook, more than her last book, can be read as a statement of premises. By arranging the many crimes of the “fathers” against her, Moxley “cheers herself up” (in Eliot’s phrase, from his essay on Othello, discussing the moments before the murder), but creates, as well, a series of experiences in language–coherent, extreme and demanding verbal performances–that are not out of place in our poetic culture that thrives on simultaneity, innovation, variety, and bizarre forms of knowledge, even if the poems take on and contradict these desires directly. Each poem in Wrong Life, around which there is a distinctive aura that doesn't suggest blindness so much as a startlingly alien but also familiar perspective, is a different formal assay into subject creation that are as aware of the problems facing poetry as any writing now.

Bio: Brian Kim Stefans lives in Brooklyn, New York. His book of poems, Angry Penguins, was published in 2000 by Harry Tankoos Books, along with a reprint of Gulf(1998). Free Space Comix (Roof) appeared in 1998. Visual poetry, including a Flash poem “The Dreamlife of Letters,” can be found at, and his site, Arras, is at



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