Guns and Flags Project
The epigraphs to these books immediately alert us to their sympathies. OBrien begins The Guns and Flags Project, his first collection of poems, with a line from Wittgensteins Remarks on Colour: If a ghost appeared to me during the night, it could glow with a weak whitish light; but if it looked grey, then the light would have to appear as though it came from somewhere else. While directing our attention to the importance of color and other fundamentals in the book, this passage also perfectly captures the uncanny logic that OBrien follows throughout, leading to conclusions lit from somewhere else. For the epigraph of The Sense Record, Moxleys second full-length collection, the poet offers a line from Louis Zukofskys A-12: To be is better than not to be. To Live. By invoking Zukofsky invoking Shakespeare, Moxley foregrounds her interest in literary history as the communication and transformation of myriad messages held in common.
Moxleys The Sense Record also aims to revive the lyric poem, so she takes us back to its roots: Orestes is evoked in one poem, an Aeolian harp in another, and we sense Aphrodite mingling with the speaker of The Second Winter. This Greek voice is joined by others more recent. The Apollinaire of Zone echoes through her Soleil Cou Coupé; we hear Whitman in her Out of the Cradle Endlessly and Blake, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Oppen, and Ashbery more subtly throughout. Though shes developed a dense, discursive poetry all her own, the presence of these other voices both lets her acknowledge her debts and interrogate the role of the past. This interrogation drives the long poem Impervious to Starlight, which seems nostalgic with its sprinkling of phrases such as Back then, How we longed to, and How could we have known then, but its Proustian edge complicates the nostalgia, bringing the past into the present and holding it close for scrutiny. The poem becomes a search for the new structures that time makes when memory becomes the living present.
Memory lives also in individual words, and Moxley uses seemingly antiquated oneserelong, ever and anonfrom time to time. At first, they jar and sound quaint; what saves them is that they continue to jar, yet soon cease to sound quaint and instead reverberate across the disparity of times. By mixing dictions and eras, Moxley is doing something akin to samplingcreating a pastiche in the best postmodern tradition. Such pastiches can imply that the present, being bankrupt, has little of its own to offer. Although Moxley minimizes this suggestion by emphasizing homage, shes not interested in facile consolation. The strains of a very real disillusionment filter through: Things inured / to emptiness continue with their cold / busyness, Ribboning dreams unspool in a discarded heap / of oppressive gravity, remember when life / was still compelling . . . One cause of this disillusionment is poetry itself, or rather the industry it can engender. Though couched in metaphor, The Best American Poetry addresses this; Out of the Cradle Endlessly is more direct:
Solidarity, over a barrel, fares poorly
But Moxley doesnt uncritically embrace the avant-garde, either:
The soi-disant Avant-Gardist builds
In fact, The Sense Record breaks every contemporary experimentalist rule. Rather than spare and fragmentary, Moxleys work is lush with modifiers, full sentences, and subordinate clauses. Rather than shun the first person singular as an unstable linguistic construct, she features it in almost every poem, both as herself and as a relative position open to everyone. And rather than problematize meaning, Moxley has things to say and actually says them.
Lines such as As ushers to an extinct
future / we dragged ourselves to the barbecue reveal the forward-looking
aspect of her disillusionment and voice an uneasiness shared by many
politically-minded people. And Moxleys work is politically-minded.
It is suffused with a recognition of class and gender-based inequalities
and their gamut of effects, from ruining lives to distracting one from
writing. Writing, Moxley maintains, is itself a political act. As the
political, in part, gives form to the social, its in her use of
form that Moxley blends her awareness of the political with that of
the past. She uses modified traditional structures, such as the sonnet
and blank verse, though often they lie just below the surface, not blatant,
but guaranteeing an anchor, a determinacy that is central to her ethos:
. . . Nor will / my myriad recastings exempt us / from
the obligation of picking one single, totalizing life.
Form is also important in OBriens work, though its more veiled and put to different uses. Whereas Moxley orders her poems by sculpting variations on formal ideals, OBrien appeals to the rudiments of formstrong rhythms and compelling sound relationshipsto keep an otherwise anarchical text from taking flight altogether. OBrien also shares her political concerns, though again with differences. His attitude toward government in general can be inferred from comments such as the last line of Excelsior, which defines countries as immoderate, brisk, anomalous and hollow, or from his casual aside, Its not there, but everything else about it is, / like the state and the self and military parades / as if they too are going somewhere . . .
Note where he positions the selfas a construct, a display. The books diffuse points of view and paucity of the first-person singular convey this more deeply, as does OBriens freewheeling language, which flows into nearly seamless writing, continually pulling the text into the present moment of reading. In fact, youre so present that its often difficult to keep your mind on his arguments and developments. They are there, intricate and interesting, but they are not the pointlanguage is, and the fact that its more immediate than the thoughts it conveys. Though it is ostensibly a collection of individual poems, the ultimate accomplishment of The Guns and Flags Project is this single, graceful, and homogenous gesture that refuses the poem as pristine object in favor of a rhizomatic progression in which vivid lines sporadically leap out with quirky truths: the clouds shake free of being seen, Marble becomes a slowed-down form / of that light, hence there is often a date on it, and we are free to see faces everywhere / but not to know them. The book moves at the speed of headlong dreaming, a pace underscored by the repetition of basic elements. These poems are filled with wind, rain, sun, red, blue. Not confining himself to Pounds use no word you wouldnt in the force of some emotion actually say, OBrien uses no word you wouldnt say just about every day of your life. Part of his project is to show just what can be done with the basics.
As did many modernists, OBrien embraces an aesthetics of dailiness, full of the wealth of the mundane but without the modernist attempt to make detail reveal the universal. Instead, he goes for the universal itself: Like all complementary pairs they are unfinished, And when a tenant drew up the shade / instead of seeing things the world appeared . . . These billowy, loose-limbed statements depend upon a logic that just slightly exceeds the margins of established thought, so that we find ourselves thinking things that are slightly new but that nonetheless ring true; other passages have logical form, yet lead to marvelous non-sequiturs: sincerely he believes / that as long as his tongue is the color of the sky / his brother sleeps in the world. While some readers will be tempted to translate such lines symbolically, this reduces them, channeling them into modes of already accepted thought. Instead, by vigorously pursuing language in an attempt to make it precise, OBrienlike Wittgensteinonly proves that it cannot be so. But this doesnt bother him; he lets his logic run freely along lines of association into wildly improbable avenues, indebted partly to surrealism, but more to his own sense of possibility. In the failure of precision, he sees promise and proliferationperhaps the root of the optimism that supports this book. For instance, the longer poem Observations on the Florida Question opens with several lines that strain to pinpoint the precise border between interior and surface, an exercise whose logic keeps turning surreal. But just as logic starts breaking down, despair breaks upward into something sustaining:
But then, a thing may be
Other poems similarly refuse to follow a negative course of events:
As oil is aghast on any surface
This optimism refuses to give in to despairwhich would be quite reasonable considering this climate of hurricanes, oil spills, trainwrecks, and the guns and flags of the title. It goes back, perhaps, to OBriens love of elementals. He doesnt privilege the human but sees life in and as its basic elements; therefore, destruction is impossible. No matter what happens to the earth, to us, the elemental particles will still exist. Again, what is the fate of a surface in destruction? The surface of OBriens writing is already showing us. It proliferates, breaking down into countless facetsline, phrase, wordeach of which carries a full poetic charge. <
Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review