Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Line

[Paul Klee, Abstract Trio, 1923, watercolor and ink on paper]

About Jennifer Moxley's lovely new book of prose poems,
The Line, I have, on more than one occasion, heard smart friends express reluctance about what seemed to them an easy or flip opposition of prose and verse, coming as it does immediately within the most perfunctory of descriptions of the book (title, genre). While I'll admit that this opposition might initially seem like a joke or a gimmick, I'd argue that the kind of reflection it affords is deeply moving and, by the end of the book, complex without the least hint of stale paradox.

This is partly because the poems outmaneuver any expectation that the work will be a kind of poetics, reflecting on its methods and on the relationship between prose poetry and Moxley's customary intricate and musical lines. Instead, at the beginning of the book, "line" as theme addresses itself to an experience of division, separateness and segmentation on multiple levels: first, the division of the present, a kind of moving wall, or line, between the past and future; second, the line that separates waking from sleep and marks the interpenetration of these two states; and third, the ethical line--that between thinking and acting--which Moxley's poetry has always agonized over, and which she has always seemed to suggest is poetry's special agony. For Hegel and for post-Hegelian philosopher like
Lukács, art is that which can delineate or clarify the result of capitalism's division of labor, a fragmentation of human activity and society into separate spheres--contemplation here and action there; aesthetic appreciation of form here and practical considerations over there. Art does this because--in making, in poiesis--form can never be separated from some attention to materials. Of course, the repair to these fractures that art provides is only virtual, and only a certain kind of praxis (that is, for Lukács, a revolutionary praxis) can truly heal the split. But in attempting to fill the gap, art measures its shape. As with deconstruction's logic of the supplement, it's a add-on that reveals the incompleteness of the thing added to. Those familiar with Moxley's work will recognize that the fractures and displacments of everyday life--and of aesthetic practice in everyday life-- are of major concern to her. She seems to be someone for from whom the question "what is poetry for?" can't really be banished. Many poets, it seems, just stop asking themselves this question, or at least don't voice it out loud. But if you read her interview Daniel Bouchard in the recent issue of the Poker, you'll notice her musing on it in all sorts of different ways. It's only in the final few poems from the book, then, that "the line" really becomes self-referential or a meditation on poetic form, and by this time it's been so thoroughly colored by these other considerations that these references refuse to be taken as simple aesthetic positions. Nevertheless, as much as I would be irritated by a book of poems that was suffocatingly self-reflexive, I would also not enjoy a book that didn't, in one some sense, make style one of the ways it thinks, and of course Moxley does this. That is, in place of the break that we get in a lineated poem, here instead we have a kind of moment of unconsciousness that snakes its way through the space between the final period and the first letter of each sentence. Although the poems put more emphasis on paradigmatic coherence between certain sentences than most exemplars of "the new sentence," nevertheless I can't but feel, often, that there's been a slight sub-perceptible displacement in between sentences, a cut too quick to notice:

Mystical Union

Infused with an early century's fatigue you dream you can never wake up. Your thought, a small dot on the horizon, is overtaken by traffic. Huge semis whiz by issuing noxious black smoke. Are they pushing the world's cheap goods onto the local market? Everything's plastic and bright. Mimics of vulgar joy, the people refuse their misery. In between moments of stupor they awkwardly waddle forward. Are they to blame? You dream the end of life has been forsaken by a world in ruins. Someone performs an amputation to tie the resources up. Your children are threatened not by a system but by a single unethical man. The air shimmers. You step off the curb into nothingness where the line offers itself to your hands. Grab hold or fall. Happy in the thought you might never recover you consign your trust to this flimsy thread that nobody else can see.
What I mean, I suppose, is that, for the most part, I get the sense that I can track the transitions here, that I can paraphrase to myself the latent dream-thoughts (these are all, or mostly, dream poems). I've often felt that many transcribed dreams fail as interesting writing to the extent that they succeed in being interesting dreams. Perhaps, in some sense, this is due to the fact that, as writing, they bring entirely to the surface all of the things which are often latent--below the line-- in dreams. They blur or erase the line. Freud, for instance, realizes that the associations generated in the transcription of the dream are as important as the transcribed material itself. Where dream writing is dull, or simply strange in a banal ways, is where it opts for a literal transcription of the dream instead of a production of the dream. The line, in the poem above, as an undisclosed and undisclosable technique of choice, is the way to make a kind of second dream--called waking, perhaps--from within the space of the first dream. It's an active dreaming, rather than a passive, one. Instead of accepting the fragmentation of experience into separate units which a latent logic will make sense of, the poem tries to transcend these divisions actively, even as much as it realizes that this transcendence is, well, mystical and perhaps mystificatory: like the solution of blaming a "single unethical man" (our president, for instance) instead of the system itself. As with the discussion about art in general in the above paragraph, the attempt to transcend these divisions is what, ultimately, clarifies them. Prose, in this sense, represents the unformed experience that the principle of choice has to cut into and through: where "the end of life"--the point, or the period--"has been forsaken by a world in ruins." By calling the book The Line, Moxley suggests that prose here is, in fact, lineated. It is lineated poetry degree-zero, where the possibilities for lineated shape-making (not, of course, the only kind of shape-making) out of those ruins present themselves all at once, and where the speaker hesitates among those possibilities. In presenting dream-logic and thought-logic and writing-logic, we get, perhaps, something like Moxely's lineated poems in embryonic form: prose poem as pre-poem. Last month, somebody, having been told that I was a difficult person, wrote to see if I'd participate in an AWP panel on difficulty. I'd just read this book and suggested that I say something about it, not because I think it's a particularly difficult, unforgiving, brutal or forbidding poetry (qualities I often like in a poem). On the contrary, I find Moxley's late-Victorian sentences leisurely, hypnotic, soothing, even if I do have to go back and reread the poems. No, I thought about talking on this book because I think it's a kind of meditation on the place of poetic difficulty, and more generally, about facing non-writing difficulties in writing.
The Atrophy of Private Life

In the heavy fashion magazines strewn here and there around the house the photos of objects and people mouth the word "money," but you, assuming no one wants you anymore, mishear the message as "meaning." Arousal follows. The lives of the rich are so fabulous! The destruction of the poetical lies heavily on their hands, as on their swollen notion that we are always watching. There is nothing behind the mask. Nothing suffocating under its pressure, no human essence trying to get out.
Awareness, always awareness. Don't you see how these elaborate masks are turning you into a zombie? The private life is not for they eye but for the endless interior. It is trying to push all this crap aside and find the missing line. Nobody, least of all the future, cares about the outcome of this quest.
It is easy to lose, through meddling or neglect, an entire aspect of existence. And sometimes, to cultivate a single new thought, you need not only silence but an entirely new life.

The New Constant

Failed things. What was once aesthetic pleasure is now practical satisfaction. What was once difficult to comprehend is now a necessary thread. The present turns into feathers, light and grey, and scatters with the slightest purposeful breath. Awakened, mono-vocal, redirected. The evolution of evasion in the move from charming to rude. Neither blame nor repercussion. With deathbed pressure the everyday keeps memory as a form of compassion, the future as unexplored utterance. Between these two perspectives the line continues to run through your dreams which, no longer a lost reality, work to triple interpretable being. The sacrifice of the new life has reanimated the birds. Their song is your troubled lover. This is the house where you live now.
Is it right to say that Moxley confronts a world in which the formal and stylistic devices many have come to associate with poetry in 20th century, difficulty-making devices, have lost some of their edge, some of their critical power? I think so. By stripping all of those markers from the poem, instead she seems to allow herself the license to confront the difficulties of matter, of dailiness, where form threatens threatens a hardening habit, rather than the construction of new expressive possibilities. As beloved as she may be to writers in the tradition of the New Americans and fellow travelers, she resembles that poetry surprisingly little, I'd say. If there are strong influences here, I'd say they are in Victorian prose, and more strongly, in late 19th-century French poetry, both moments of cultural and political exhaustion marked by vigorous attempts to break with the past. Gramsci: "the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born." Not exactly, quite, or yet.

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