Reading Jennifer MoxleyPoems 1975-2000
Imagination Verses (New York: Tender Buttons, 1996)

by Rod Mengham

This review was first published in Parataxis: Modernism and Modern Writing 10 (2001): 103-8.

(This paper was occasioned by a conference on Anglo-American poetic relations at the Centre for English Studies, University of London, in July 1998)

In the long poem “Ten Prolegomena to Heartbreak,” which is the penultimate text in Imagination Verses (Tender Buttons, 1996), the speaker reveals her wish that she, and not Frank O’Hara, had been the author of “In Memory of My Feelings,” a poem whose title suggests a dual focus: a commemoration of something dead, on the one hand, and on the other hand an attempt to recover those feelings and bring them alive in poetry.  It may be this kind of dual perspective that is being referred to in another poem, “The Waver in the Orbit of Uranus Becomes Unexplainable” in the phrase “parallax of heart”: “I ask you, is it fitting to undo me by leaving / now that we know there is nothing out there / beyond what we can see? / I admit I’ve suffered from a ‘parallax of heart,’ / born of a skewing jealousy and seen most evenings / in field-weary gazing upon your sleeping body. / From that angle all other worlds look bleak”(69).  Parallax is the apparent change in the position of a heavenly body when viewed from different points; when viewed from opposite points on the earth’s surface this change is called the daily or diurnal or geocentric parallax, and when viewed from opposite points of the earth’s orbit, the annual or heliocentric parallax.  What I want to do is discuss the potential of this figure for exploring the poetry of Jennifer Moxley, first with reference to the memory of feeling, then with reference to cultural memory, then with regard to the relationship between these two things; and finally I want to ask whether we can think about there being any Anglo-American dimension to this relationship.

It seems to me that there’s a fundamentally parallactical procedure operating in Moxley’s poetry, and that once can begin to try to describe the manner of its operation in a poem like “Cast of Shadows.”  It’s a poem which is certainly heliocentric in its fashion, and which takes as its occasion a recognition of the scale of the annual parallax, referred to here as the moment when “the yearly hoax begins”(61).  The title is parallactical of course; from one angle it allows us to see shadows cast by the sun; from another, a shadowy cast of characters who have disappeared but who have left behind traces, in the predications and attributions, of trickery, cowardice, vituperation, denial, mockery, mismating...

Niggling Spring, the distant palaver
of subjects in the craven bite
of the opening air, in wanders
a holster-wearing mussed Apollo
gushing the beckoning tirade,
bedazzled credo beloved of sports
and the yearly hoax begins.

In a moment good reason will be shunned
for the tinny whistle of the calliope,
the fragile petalled entreaty
of heart’s-ease erase a tedious legacy
of schedule, shuffle the mind back
through a violent sequence of mise en scene:
mankind mismated to misery.

Cleaving still to it
humanity a coterie of cruelty
bends over backwards to forget
the sky’s no nimble chariot
nor ever will be,
no matter the yearly rebirth
or self-induced labor we cop.

The brass light of day mocks
more readily possibility’s hollow
following winter’s shut-in drear,
gerrymandered love interests
come knocking down the heart block
demand a lamp granted, hope
and all across the sky, uninterrupted sun.(61)

These stanzas are over-crowded and unwieldy, slightly weighed down with ballast as if to compensate for a liability to drift, as if to make up for the uncertainty of a reader who seeks but fails to locate easily a main clause or the principle on which dependent clauses are related to each other.  The overall movement of the poem is spasmodic, comprised of alternately bunching and stretching rhythms that remind me of the experience of reading certain of John Wieners’ poems in Behind the State Capitol.  The slight but persistent displacement in syntactical terms is accompanied by a semantic waywardness, by the use of several vocabularies that are relatively resistantto collocation in the linguist’s sense.  This dislocation of vocabularies is activated primarily by a project of attribution, by the need to identify an antagonist (in other poems an interlocutor or addressee) through the accumulation of attributes.  Attribution sustains but also dislocates feelings of antagonism and complexifies questions of agency; anomalous items of vocabulary are superimposed on one another and bonded together in a series of protective laminates that offer some displacement from the origin of hurt.  This displacement, or parallactic removal, reducing vulnerability, has a similar motivation to that of the impulse to deflate the antagonist that is virtually uppermost in the intentions of the poem “Kalypso Facto”:

The matrix of your hamstrung home-life
is undercutting all my generous gifts.
The current temper is such that soon
even the most bedlamite among us
will be threatened by marriage.  Such
unalienable boundaries are bringing distrust
to all frolicers.  Now the clouds show Zeus
is arriving to muck us up even further.
That hopped-up interventionist is thieving
all my island’s hidden treason.  His loud
armaments have been making petit fours
of continents for far too long.  Now you
who once found me dainty are eloping
with Enyo.  Your indiscretion may dress-up
progress in money lending but trembling
at the horizon I hear those othered lands.
We’re all entangled in your strong-arm, but
fault me if we don’t coalesce to curb
your second guessing with a dose
of our jilted memory.(58)

The interesting thing about this work of the “jilted memory” is the parallactic effect of the speaker’s knowledge of her abandonment combined with her use of a present tense appropriate to the time of ignorance before the event has taken place.  Her defiance of the Ulyssean figure is managed partly by her conscripting herself into the company of “all frolicers”—hers is a desperately frolicsome poem.  The cartoon mythology is characteristic of a significant number of Moxley’s poems.  The mythological figures always appear stripped of their cultural epaulettes, always demoted in rank by a poet who is always overly familiar with them.  This heavily distorted stock in trade is often automatically Americanized; thus Apollo is “mussed” and “holster-wearing”(61).  The antagonism here is with a tradition of “distant palaver,” so distant that distortion is inevitable(61).  Cultural disalienation (through Americanization) is cross-hatched, however, with emotional estrangement.  The technique of cultural appropriation is even more scandalously employed in the poems that advertise their antagonism with the history of English poetry, most obviously the two “duets” with Wordsworth and Keats (62-63), which are really duels.  Here, the words of Wordsworth’s and Keats’s poems are simply edited and rearranged, in a clear case of cultural parallax, where the “apparent change in the disposition of the object is caused by a change of position in the observer”: English poetry undergoing mutation when viewed from a different point on the earth’s surface.  

The memory of feelings results in a technique of systematic distractions and so does the memory of English poetry.  What complicates this situation is that the distracted language of feelings is often simultaneously the language of English poetry.  If we are looking for an Anglo-American dimension in the work of this writer, this is not to be considered in terms of influence, but as a reflection of its characteristically profound dislocations.  Perhaps the most striking of its culturally dislocated vocabularies is that of social relationships, which are often given a curiously Anglo-Norman colouring.  In “The Waver in the Orbit of Uranus Becomes Unexplainable,” threats to the authority of the speaker are conceived of in terms of “pretenders to the throne” and the necessity for banishment (69).  In “Bi-Coastal Fleshings” and “The Nuptial Life,” social rank is indicated by class and gentry status.  In the same two poems, power relationships are mapped in terms of feudal allegiance (“down that rabbit hole my liege”(12)) and patronage (“even bored henchmen / would find this outfit tempting”(57)).  And in “Cast of Shadows” humanity is categorised as a “coterie”(61), which in its original Norman-French sense meant “a number of peasants holding land jointly from the same lord.”  What’s particularly striking about this vocabulary is that it refers to a set of social relationships for which the cement is loyalty, and this has an obvious bearing on the emotional scenarios to which it alludes.  It works to confirm the value of feelings at the same time as it distracts the attention powerfully away from them.  There is no doubt that it is incorporated into the text in an ostentatiously theatrical manner.  Most important of all, it is an obviously imported vocabulary.  Moxley’s work shows a strong interest in the quarantine status of certain vocabularies.

And, correspondingly, in the vocabulary of quarantine, of emigration and incursion, of the permeability of boundaries and borders.  Of “unalienable boundaries” in “Kalypso Facto”; of interventionism and the horizon of cultural difference: “trembling / at the horizon I hear those othered lands” and of the division and re-division of territory: “His loud/armaments have been making petit fours / of continents for far too long”(58), in “Kalypso Facto,” and “There you are in the hinterland chiselling / Nations” in “Fin de Siecle Go-Betweens”(13).  The maintenance and breaching of national and cultural boundaries are activities amplified by references to natural thresholds in “The Waver in the Orbit of Uranus Becomes Unexplainable”: “I suspect the water’s edge is enamoured of the water” and “I have never seen planet X / or the wooden ships on the eastern horizon”(69).  The introjection and incorporation of cultural dividing-lines is recognized in the title of “Bi-Coastal Fleshings.”  One poem which illustrates well the overlap between the memory of feelings and wider questions of integration and expulsion is “Fin de Siecle Go-Betweens”:

There you are in the hinterland chiseling
Nations into the ocean as I await torrential
winds.  In our search for beauty we’ve left
our footprints for the Native informers of narcissism
to uncover once we’ve fled.  We should have let
the out-of-work jesters jingle gun toters
and just gone on with the Eros of coastal waters.
I’ll hide your lesser self inside this bird of paradox,
a place dispatchers won’t mistake it for any
errant sign of life.  While we’ve been talking
they’ve lined up along the border towns
heavy with wistfulness, so if ever lip service
might save the planet let’s hope it’s now,
jettison that charm however and we might be
the end of something gathered.

It’s worth remembering at this point how Frank O’Hara’s own poem “In Memory of My Feelings” has a scenario in which a personal history is located within the history of American culture, and is located within it polymorphously; the way in which O’Hara’s speaker metamorphoses, inhabiting a whole series of different cultural identities one after another, is perhaps reflected in the instability of borders in “Fin de Siecle Go-Betweens.”  It is almost as if there are as many potential sets of borders as there are observers.  Of course, the politically motivated version of this re-drawing of borders is gerrymandering, an idea that comes up in “Cast of Shadows.” The term is happily an American one: the first instance of reconstituting an electoral district with a view to political advantage is supposed to have been the work of Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1811 produced the shape of a salamander by re-drawing the map of Massachusetts.  A clear case of the parallax view in which an object is revised from a purely personal perspective.  The object of gerrymandering in “Cast of Shadows” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, “love interests”(61).

The extensive use of a vocabulary concerned to negotiate the demarcation-line between “ham-strung home-life” and “othered lands” is not, as I hope I’ve made clear, part of an allegorization of emotional trauma.  It is rather part of the parallax effect of a writing that is constantly taking the measure of its own displacement from a source of ambivalent power.  The constant renegotiation of position is an activity passed on to the reader who is made aware of the angle of incidence between different ways of interpreting the same material.  “I’m a camera gathering brightness / my ligature of future imaginings” is the declaration of “Bi-Coastal Fleshings,” with the enjambment, or ligature, between the two lines allowing the knowledge of an aperture, or opening-up, to underlie the apprehension of ligature as surgical closing-off: the negotiation of a threshold that is simultaneously permeable and impermeable.  Like the threshold between English and American poetry: “That hopped-up interventionist is thieving / all my island’s hidden treason,” the object of the theft being a buried treasure, whose cultural legacy is as treacherous as it is irresistible.  A connoisseur of mistranslations, both between languages and cultures and within them, the poet insists on a parallactic gesture, not just to offset damage, but also to find an equivalent means of countering the potential for cultural and emotional wiliness and misconstruction.  Gerrymandering syntax, discourse and the tradition, Moxley is engaged in a continual reconstitution of her Americanness, one of whose verges, perhaps the largest, is clipped by an English accent. 

Bio: Rod Mengham lectures in the Faculty of English at Cambridge, where he is also Director of Studies in English at Jesus College.  He has written The Idiom of the Time: the Writings of Henry Green (Cambridge, 1983), “Wuthering Heights”: a Critical Study (Penguin, 1988), The Descent of Language: Writing in Praise of Babel (Bloomsbury, 1993) and Charles Dickens (Writers and their Work, forthcoming 2001).  He has also edited the short stories of E.M. Forster and An Introduction to Contemporary Fiction (Polity, 1999) and has co-edited with Jana Howlett The Violent Muse: Violence and the Artistic Imagination in Europe 1910-1939 (Manchester, 1994) and with Neil Reeve Fiction of the 1940s: Stories of Survival (Palgrave, 2001).  He is currently working on Upward Spiral: Edward Upward and the Politics of Writing for OUP.  He is the editor of the Equipage series of poetry pamphlets and co-organizer of the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry.  His own poems have been published under the title Unsung: New and Selected Poems (Folio/Salt, 1996; 2nd edition 2001).


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