Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Moxley's First Division of Labor [1989]

Jennifer's Moxley's sequence First Division of Labor was written, she tells us in the afterward to the volume in which it appears, Often Capital, in 1989, though it wasn't published until 2005 [Flood Editions, Chicago]. I wasn't familiar with Moxley's work when I happened upon a stash of her books recently, and it occurred to me, considering the date of its composition, that this sheaf of early poems might yield some insights into the development of abstract poetics during the last 35 years.

As a member of an earlier generation--I was born in 1947, so my first avant garde discoveries would include Ashbery, Berrigan, Zukofsky, Eigner, along with the dozens of other poets whom I was first reading during the late 1960's and 1970's--my orientation now must have a dated feel to those coming after the big formalistic break-outs of the 1970's. Who, I thought to myself, were Ms. Moxley's models, her forebears, her true antecedents? Where had she gotten her line, her stylistic changes, circa 1989? What was she emulating, if not a wholly original vision not gotten out of any other man's books?

For my own part, as I've written earlier, I had wanted a poetry as passionate as the romantics, but in a style distinctly up-to-date. Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath appeared to answer most of my needs, in this sense, though I also wanted, at various times, to be able to learn from Snyder, Whalen, Blackburn, Dugan, Schuyler, O'Hara, Oppen, Spicer, &c.

Reading First Division of Labor, there is an odd sense of time-warp--it was, after all, composed over 20 years ago, and thus is perceived as an unknown fragment of literary history. Imagine how striking Manley Hopkins's poems must have seemed, when first published in 1918, almost thirty years after his death! 1

It should be possible, perhaps, to place Moxley's earliest poems, within the context of the most advanced efforts of that period--1970's, 1980's--to discern what she may have thought she was doing.

Moxley tells us in the Afterword that these poems were composed on an IBM typewriter (how old-fashioned that now sounds!), around the time of the beginning of a relationship, and during a period when she was fervantly reading the love letters of Rosa Luxemburg to her lover Leo Jogiches. It might well be useful, despite the complexities of doing so, to dissect this work of Moxley's in relation to the meaning and position of Luxemburg's life and writings, her martyrdom and legacy, but given the highly abstract quality of the writing itself, I doubt whether the casual reader--a probable identity which I usually try to consider in estimating the value of any work--would or could be expected to be very curious about this aspect. Of greater moment, is the emotional and philosophical spheres within which Moxley considers her own situation and plight, expressed through the template of the poems' subtext. Moxley may well have envisioned her own role in the history of the emancipation of women, within the larger class struggle defined by socialist crisis-theory and revolutionary purpose, as providing a basis upon which to portray her own aesthetic preoccupations.

First Division of Labor is comprised of 15 poems, of between 11 and 21 lines each in length. They're set with a fairly definitive left-hand margin, with a few minor departures (indents). Formally, they proceed by fragmented phrases, syntactically straightforward (at the level of the phrase), and the references are effectively isolated from context (without any traditional narrational flow). It is rather like a sequence of 14 poems, with a kind of coda at the end. Sequences have their own kind of logic, facilitating recurrence and looping, and allowing for certain unities of form through reinforcement and stylistic variation within a set of expanding ordinations, as in Poem #10--



in that "humanity" takes liberties

the crowded annals place

the faded statute

in males, to not agree

goes in holes, the defeat by books

to disagree in space is a bold white move

a race implied endless, sightless female, my photographic history

there is memory of what isn't and not silence,

we're never quiet only graspless,

only inconvenient, wileyness wills, grab hold or be kept


I know and therefore am ceaseless, not imaginary

ready for demanding

an annotated vanishing

--in which the double spacing commands an emphatic stepping off of the line-breaks. The separation both makes possible a split or leap, and reinforces the initial impact of the potential relationship between phrases. Using the spacial relationships of the placement of words in/across the field of the page was something Larry Eigner began to use, way back in the 1950's and '60's; and it became a hallmark of his style. Many other people tried this. Paul Blackburn was particularly adept at marking pace and emphasis through positioning and line-breaks. In the 1970's, Bruce Andrews began to combine this "exploded" page layout with a new kind of non-narrative, non-syntactical "content" in which nodes (signs and sensations) of feeling and texture--parataxis, multi-contextuality, non-referentiality--all co-exist within a free-floating, poly-morphic continuum. In a poem like that above, however, there is a precedence of logical rhetorical command that is every bit as deliberate and insistent as any of Oppen's early lyrics, or as precise and measured as Watten's lines, in, say, Factors Influencing the Weather. The poem is like an argument, coded in the shorthand of dissonant factions, coiling around its own provisional indignancies, offering contradictory objections to half-enunciated theses, vanquishing presumptions in the bud. The field of the poem then, is like a battlefield of competing sequences of incremental adjustments, containing dilemmas of self, scuttled resolutions.

how given chorus

a she complete

alleged fair and castor
a fool

donned ritual, this year's buoys
to Bronte, or avant committal

read him tied,

contained bound and white

here is a great leader, a lullaby
to be kept

if and Narcissus straddled the lake

Here the separate nominatives (chorus, castor, Bronte, Narcissus) tend towards/strive for a connection to a meaning whose indeterminacy is implacable, like a misconception locked in childhood. It says what it says, that the fragmentary passage of consciousness through a "real" wasteland of chimerical identities can be just as persuasive and convincing as the artificial logic of language itself. The gendered interplay of tendered gestures towards a possible truce, is delicate and tentative, though also declarative and obdurate--the language moves powerfully, by stages, not to be seduced into any convenient provisional compromises. Think of it as a constellation of disembodied fragments, partially sketched in, partially committed to the sequence of probable "interpretations" (better to call them mediations?) of rubric, gist.

Between, on the one hand, the full-bore transcriptions of non-narrational flow, like Silliman's Ketjak, or Coolidge's meditative epics--or, even, going way back, to Stein's works as in Bee Time Vine--and more decorous endeavors such as Michael Palmer's Notes for Echo Lake or At Passages, or Mac Low's Stanzas for Iris Leszak--one may perceive a loosely cross-fertilized stream of possible development, flowing between outcroppings of vaunted bric-a-brac and ikonic ruin.

What I like about this writing is its employment of a kind of rhetorical futility as a tool, rather in the way Rae Armantrout does it. Though Moxley isn't about outing concealed hypocrisies lurking behind ordinary discourse, she's perfectly at home ransacking myth and treatise for whatever expediency may come to hand.

I understand that each Moxley book is different, that the progression is difficult to trace. If this is where she began, one has the sense of having stepped into a quickly moving course, aware that the source of this flow is far upstream, having incorporated several contributory rivulets and chemical bi-products along the way. This early work functions at the level of the individual phrase, the connective tissue removed, hesitating at the threshold of assertion, rejecting statement in favor of piecemeal abstraction; then it places these conjoined fragmented partialities in a way that suggests Ashbery via Andrews:

These decibels are a kind of flagellation...











If these are similar measures, the pedigree of their descent would be difficult to define. Each generation of experimenters draws upon the findings of its predecessors, but owes no ultimate aesthetic allegiance. The technologies of metaphysics involve the appropriation both of prior means, as well as new permissions of apprehension. Conjunctions and prepositions and nouns and verbs and modifiers and exclamations and interrogatives. They come out in streams of ordination, (in) an order that follows the logic of an individual consciousness. Uniqueness: Moxley's mind is unlike anyone else's, and through her language--applying her senses of expression and order--she enunciates a purposeful reorganization of known language. The page is a playground, a workspace, a circuit-board, a membrane, a lens, a window, a target, a wall, a material fact, a broadside, a site of contention, an artifact, a graded surface, an accident, an inevitable outcome, a mediated de-militarized zone, a currency of usage, a performance, a dumping-ground, a distillate, an experiment, a hitch in time, a bird in the hand. It is all these and more, and in the simultaneity of that conflation of interests, conditions, intentions and consequences, is born a hybrid.


1 A more contemporary instance might be the work and career of Jack Gilbert, whose famous early collection Views of Jeopardy [1962] was nearly forgotten, until, 22 years later, his second collection, Monolithos [1984], appeared, ushering in a belated, anti-climactic flurry of interest. For a poet whose work bore more similarity to contemporaries of two generations earlier (Stafford, Bly, Wright, Davison, Merrill), this had the effect of causing a reappraisal of a whole era of styles and approaches, initially, at least, thought to be over and done with.


Kirby Olson said...

There are a few handholds here: gender, I suppose, and the first delineation of labor into hunters and cooks (women being the cooks).

The Wittgensteinian turn to language was always already a mistake.

I think we should erase that whole period perhaps, and go back at least to Kant, if not before, and start over, as this lineage (Ashbery, Moxley) has lots of moxie but offers very little except abstractions pushing at the borders of parameters, and morphing into bewildering new gender benders like Judy Butler.

Ask Jeeves.

I prefer Billy Collins.

J said...

Tw*t's that? I kun't hear you. KO's attachment to Kant seems a bit odd, given KO's rightist politics (e.g Aynnie Rand, one of Lut.Sur. regs' role models, detested Kant).

Kant was actually supportive of the French Revolution (probably not...the jacobins), and liberal, or nearly so in terms of politics, and even his ...speculative metaphysics however baggy do not seem that...pious (as paddy jh would probably attest). He rejects Thomistic arguments, and does not really affirm traditional theology--though he does preserve Mind, or shall we say, the cognitive a priori--however obscurely--. That's superior to most Brit/bottlewasher reductionists, or freudo-marxist hacks (which alas seems an apt description of "Miss" Moxley, mostly).

Tho to be honest Sir F. I don't think you got the previous discussion on...platonic Ideas as they relate to....poetical themes (and the inadequacies of "Darwinism"). As Ezra Pound surely did (and no Kantian, EP--but in some sense closer to thomistic tradition--y SeƱor Aligheri--- with....a few pagan fringes)