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The Little Door Slides Back
Jeff Clark
Sun & Moon Press, $10.95 (paper)

Madonna anno domini
Joshua Clover
Louisiana State University Press, $19.95, $11.95 (paper)

Imagination Verses
Jennifer Moxley
Tender Buttons, $8.95 (paper)

by John Yau

In the preface to her collection Imagination Verses, Jennifer Moxley proposes something that I think poets of her generation should consider, if they haven't already: "The poem offers a history of and a future for the mind's prerogative to exist as more than a memory of its milieus. It is a small but necessary intervention, a crucial and critical disjuncture." Not only is Moxley critical of autobiographical poetry written, it seems, in the tranquillity of recollection and the poet's knowledge that there exists a small but accepting, empathetic audience, but she is also voicing her doubts about any poetry that dramatizes the self's fixed relationship to the world. I believe Jeff Clark and Joshua Clover would agree with her. At their strongest, all three write lyrical poetry that departs from such well-known postwar lyric modes as the confessional, anecdotal, exalted, or solipsistic imagism--forms of a debased realism still practiced by many poets. For Clark, Clover, and Moxley, the poem isn't a window overlooking a "common" reality; their use of an imaginative, disembodied lyric "I" leads not to the reiteration of exhausted modes of writing, but to experimentation and investigation, and to the question of what, and who, is the "I" made of?

All three poets share a belief that the poem must earn its existence, and that the poet can only ensure this possibility, by attending more to the construction of lines and the juxtaposition of words within a line than to the narration of a story. They have rejected the stable, secure, full-throated "I" of much mainstream poetry of the last half-century in favor of the fragmentary, shifting, destabilized "I" of experimental autobiography investigated in the past two decades by poets as diverse as Barbara Guest, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Bernadette Mayer, Charles North, Alice Notley, Nathaniel Mackey, David Shapiro, and Will Alexander, and further investigated by Laura Mullen, Joseph Lease, Andrew Joron, Kevin Young, and Albert Mobilio.

In doing so, Clark, Clover, and Moxley recognize that Descartes' dictum, "I think, therefore I am," is no longer a valid suppositum for poetry, and tacitly acknowledge that the mind-body problem, which has haunted philosophy at least since Plato and Aristotle, is a fruitful place to consider what language can and cannot say. For all three, language is proposal at once responsive and imaginative.

Moreover, while the argument between those who believe in the metaphysical nature of language and those who conceive of it as a material construct is far from settled, Clark, Clover, and Moxley have managed to absorb lessons from the Language poets without accepting their proscription against lyrical poetry. They have learned to make gestures towards meaninglessness and to use sounds as an organizing principle; they understand that a word's meaning arises out of the context in which it is used, rather than the story it is used to tell. Perhaps more to the point, each of these young poets has also taken cues from the New York School poets, particularly their use of both strict yet arbitrary forms (sestina, pantoum), free verse, and experimental modes.

In Clark, Clover, and Moxley's rejection of the "I" as stable presence--a kind of lighthouse from which a poem releases its palpable, comforting glow--I believe we can see the first signs of a historical shift that may one day be seen as important as the emergence of more tightly connected groups such as the Beats, the New York School, and the Black Mountain poets in the 1950s and the Language poets in the late 1970s. This is not to say that Clark, Clover, and Moxley are major poets (or even part of a group); it's too early to make that kind of pronouncement. But at the very least, these three very different and engaging poets are harbingers of a widespread change in the way poetry is being written, and the printing of their first books is cause for celebration.


Chosen by Ray DiPalma in the 1996 National Poetry Series competition, Jeff Clark's The Little Door Slides Back includes poems, prose poems, weird fables, lists, aphorisms, and snippets of conversation. Clark evokes a world of bordellos, log houses, and bungalows, of trailers, hangars, and a social strata in which the nomadic and the outcast mingle; he integrates fin-de-siňcle richness, hallucinatory vision, and a gothicism extracted from the bleak cul-de-sacs of postmodern life.

While Clark's is a world populated with characters such as the "Soul-Siphon" and the "Lord," it is also a fragile, interior world largely lit by the moon, cheap paperbacks, and noir movies, a place in which predicaments and paradoxes abound:


High noontide in my interior: the red deer
wends out of my ravine when I wave, the
little goat.
The shadows of my Frenchmen annihilate my little night-womps.
In the back-of-the-eyelid cinema: arabesques.
My best records are each hiss or moan or tremolo.
Your shadow annihilates my little day-womps.
("My Interior")

Clark's language is striking in its dissonant combinations of slang ("Babydoll," "womps"), portmanteau words ("demonologue," "novantiquities"), and conversions of nouns into adjectives ("frondacious," "Minotaury"), all of which he casually introduces into his poems. Though he will occasionally write an incomplete declarative sentence or string together a disconnected catalog, on a syntactic level his work is mostly straightforward. But don't be fooled by his seemingly concise style; Clark's concisions aren't reductive. His goal is nothing less than to investigate, by way of the disembodied lyric "I," the relationship between one's selves and the bounded body:


I had a ward I adored and tortured in four ways

I mocked his wish to be rid of me

I made it impossible for him to sit still

I was how shall I say it Proprietor
Of his parts Lord I was Lassitude

He was like a horse to me I locked him in then starved him
As for my horse Lord I starved him and
introduced ticks to his body. . .

And yet I believe I thought now and then I loved my horse Lord

Thus the more barbarous my treatment the less his visage and voice . . .
("Demonologue")

Clark directs our attention away from the notion of a "common" reality and toward a strange and shifting interior world, while also trying to gauge the degree to which this world exists outside himself: his poems are subversions of the autobiographical. Taking off from Henri Michaux's "Some Information About Fifty-Nine Years of Existence," Clark titles his own evasive and compressed anti-autobiography "Some Information About Twenty-Three Years of Existence." Here are two in their entirety:


1982

Model Homes. Kisses from a decorator named Dots.

Impregnated by an alien duneflower.
Autodialogues begin.


1983

First ejaculation„accidental„: into a bottle of bath salts.

Entranced and mortified by crepuscular birdclatter.

Parable of the Hangared Satellite.

April: receiving, as if in earphones, someone else's thinking.

Rather than dramatizing a fixed relationship to the world, Clark's poems allow themselves to be pulled along by their unpredictable, discordant music: they're open to chance, private association, and "someone else's thinking." There's a measured recklessness throughout the work, as seen in the use of "birdclatter" at the end of an otherwise high-toned, rather formal line, and there's a sense of the absurd carried out at the level of both language and subject. Clark may be captivated by the highly charged, densely imaged realm we associate with Baudelaire and Rimbaud, but he knows when and how to subvert it, as in his opening poem "Lunar Tercets": "Satellites are not boys circling the lowback chairs / and record heaps of their drunken masters: they are machines." Clark attempts to recover and assess--rather than reject or ignore--the past and the beginnings of modernism by constructing a flaneur who is both terrified and bemused by the world he enters as "the little door slides back."


Joshua Clover's Madonna anno domini was chosen by Jorie Graham for the Academy of American Poets' 1996 Walt Whitman Award. Like Clark, Clover writes in many modes: lyrics, prose poems, fictionalized postcards, and other invented forms. He too is bold and inventive with language, particularly on the level of image and allusion. He isn't afraid of using bad puns ("lowgloss magazine," "Romeoville & joliet"), revising clichs and platitudes ("First thought / Only thought"), or combining high-toned words with slang ("Zaffer, baby, Milori, cleste, the sky so blue-colored"). Madonna anno domini's primary subject is America as media invention, mythic domain, urban and rural landscape, and sociopolitical entity at the end of a war-torn century:


Ka-Boom! They're making glass in Nevada!
Figure August, 1953,
mom's 13, it's hot as a simile.
Ker-Pow! Transmutation in Nevada!
Imagine mom: pre-postmodern new teen,
innocent for Elvis, ditto "Korean
conflict," John Paul George Ringo Viet Nam.
Mom's one state west of the glassworks, she's
in a tree / k*i*s*s*i*n*g,
lurid cartoon-colored kisses. Ka-Blam!

[ . . . ]

It's the Future, hot like nothing else, dressed
as a sonic-boom Cadillac. O mom!
This land is your land / This land Amnesia„
they're dropping some new science out there,
a picture-perfect hole blown clear to Asia:
everything in the desert„Shazam!„turns
to glass, gold glass, a picture window where
the bomb-dead kids are burned & burn & burn
("The nevada glassworks")

In Clover's America, real thoughts and feelings are being replaced by their simulacra: "They moved across the screen like a computer simulation. / They moved across the screen like complex models & we learned to call this a nature show." Cast in the role of an alienated individual who can't find a way to overcome it, Clover tries in his poems to discover what, if anything, has any real bearing on his life.

In "Radiant city," a powerful experiment in self-examination by way of the Rodney King incident, Clover shuffles together newsreel footage, local event, personal experience, and collective memory. How, he seems to be asking, amidst all this, can one recover a self that is at best an assemblage of fragments?

First it was one thing then it was
one thing after another. We
tend to think of fused flowers

as igniting outward from a
central place as in sex as in
Haussman's Radiant City. I

saw it live on TV.
From overhead it's possible
to speak of the whole thing, First day

of the riots but before that
I was near home when S„this is
just a personal incident„

passed by in an old red shirt. They
weren't letting people out of
the stations as of the early

rumors of lootings. This after
Eastern Europe. Buildings burning
to the south as in parables

as in what punk rock promised. I
found this exciting. "He was
in control of the whole thing."

[ . . . ]

Radiant as for example
1700 infrared

poppies blooming in the over-
head footage of south central. The
second night of riots. As in

Berlin years back„we have all seen
this footage„when the Wall came down
the main thing was chocolate also

blue jeans. "He kept trying to get
back up."

The poem's closing refrain is both brash and disturbing: "I admit / I found the whole thing exciting. / We have all seen this footage." That shift, from "I" to "we," marks the growing rift between the personal and the collective or "common" reality that haunts postmodern America, and that poets have lamented throughout history. But instead of following many other poets in directing the poem to an empathetic audience, a smaller and more sensitive group within the larger one, Clover here investigates the gap between a disembodied, shifting, and ultimately isolated "I" and the ideals of any "we" that exist within America.

From Graham, Clover has learned to write long, tumbling, breathless lines in which the voice is declamatory and insistent. At times, this falling, staccato movement slides from the mesmerizing to the numbing; it's as if Clover's been charmed by his own music and has stopped scrutinizing language, stopped investigating it on the phonemic and syntactic levels. But at other times, as in "Radiant city," the unvarying register of the voice can effectively focus the attention of the reader, or listener as the case may be. The performative character in Clover's poetry is at once a strength and a weakness. At its least successful, it can lead to a declamatory glibness, as in "Union pacific," where Clover's mantric "Om" becomes a cute trick, the irony of its initial use replaced by the dullness of repetition. Still, there's not only humor--so often lacking in poets who use a full-throated "I"--in Madonna anno domini, but also a wonderful inventiveness with image, metaphor, description, and pun. When they all work together, Clover takes readers places they haven't been, or known, before:


The day bloomed outward
from the bedclothes of the sun
like a detonation, like
the lifetime's work of the eye,
little red likelihood, and
then things were more visible. . .
("Unset")

While Jennifer Moxley's Imagination Verses hasn't won any prizes, it's a book worthy of just as much attention as The Little Door Slides Back and Madonna anno domini. Like Clark and Clover, Moxley mixes formal speech with street slang, snippets of headlines, and other detritus from the language of our daily life:


And so I journeyed. My soulless soul
a darkened station full of notices:
"Psychic phenomenon sweeps the Nation,"
amazing what borders can do these days.
("Lucky So and So")

The subject of Imagination Verses is the unbridgeable, potentially chaotic space between the "I" and the "you." Moxley wants to reanimate the personal address, and she knows that she has to find a way to do so that transcends derivative borrowings from her literary ancestors, particularly Frank O'Hara. (Like O'Hara, she has written a number of odes, but hers are addressed to a single individual rather than to a group.) Seldom rooted in a particular scene or time, such as the lunch hour, Moxley's work is neither picturesque nor dependent upon image to move it forward. Rather than relying on the "I do this, I do that" mode that O'Hara raised to a level of aesthetic perfection, her poems draw the reader into a realm in which the exterior and interior are indistinguishable. Moxley's disembodied lyric "I" seems alone in a room writing letters, not walking about the streets of some large city:


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.
("Fin de Siňcle Go-Betweens")

While this is neither the world of Clark's bungalows nor the landscape of Clover's Nevada, it is equally substantial and specific. And more than either of the others, Moxley has moved away from descriptive modes; in her work it is often difficult to deduce the real-life landscape behind the poems. But Moxley is also able to synthesize the abstract and the particular ("narcissism," "lesser self") through context. Within her registerings of the simultaneity of intimacy and distance, each concrete thing or place seemingly melts into the next one ( "chiseling / Nations into the ocean").

Understanding that the world is no less temporal than one's feelings, Moxley refuses to succumb to any easy self-pitying or despair. Instead of proclaiming the absurdity of existence or her isolation within the world, she tries to propose what is possible after one recognizes both finitude and the absence of authority:


No, I will not fondle you willingly centurial world
nor stroke your shred of decency, I hold no candles
or so you broadcast, ever since you kissed
my world weary decadence.
Hey soldier, go flaunt your swags and jabots elsewhere
this girl is bowing out, full to the glands with garlands
and Democrats, the truthful and bad will eventually see my way.
("When In Rome")

Starting with the poem's title, "When In Rome," Moxley turns clichs upside down, makes them fresh and bold. The poem begins as if the poet were responding to a demand ("No, I won't. . ."), and then shifts to a haughty address ("Hey soldier, go flaunt . . ."). Her gendering of the "I" as female and "you" as male subverts the historical use of these pronouns in lyric poetry, and thus extends out of, while adding to, the radical innovations of poets such as Rosemarie Waldrop, Rosemary Mayer, and Alice Notley.


Writing about painting, Diderot distinguished between the "theatrical" and the "dramatic," a distinction that proves useful in discussing the work of Clark, Clover, and Moxley, and suggests one of the pitfalls awaiting a young poet. Clover' poems are often "theatrical" reflections of the external world; his subjects include not only nuclear-bomb testing and the LA riots but the Holocaust ("Totenbuch" and "The autumn alphabets (3)") and historical figures ("The plaza: trotsky in exile"). Only in "Radiant City," however, do public events burst into private life to make the perilous state of one's everyday existence evident. "Totenbuch" and "The autumn alphabets (3)" are more like set pieces, staged dramas that never spill beyond the proscenium, never finally collapse the wall separating art from life. There's too much art to them, not enough life; they rely on the reader's empathy rather than entangling him or her in the making of their meaning.

Moxley's poems, by contrast, are intimate and dramatic. They shift quickly and seamlessly on both a syntactical and linguistic level, generating a range of textures, paradoxes, and ambiguities. There is a speed to them that never announces itself, a sensitivity to tonal shifts and fluctuations. Clover's poems progress incrementally, like the work of a cinematographer scanning a wide array of disparate images out of which he hopes to generate a visual texture. Unfortunately, sometimes the images lose their generative power because of the syntactical sameness animating them. Moxley's syntactical experimentation allows her to generate a wide range of textures, ambiguities, and emotions within a single poem: "The towering worry of fin de siňcle / our spacious day, / as all in an instant / flickering, we live uncalendared."

Though Clark shares Moxley's interest in borders, his poems are an altogether different case, simultaneously concrete and strange. They register anguish with gallows humor and a satirical impulse more aggressive and disquieting than that of James Tate or Russel Edson, and certainly less cartoony. His "little door" evokes either entrance or exit--perhaps they are even the same, a possibility he finds utterly terrifying. His dense weaving of puns, portmanteau words, and private slang seems intended less to convince the reader than to render into language some sense of the "crepuscular" world in which he exists, and that exists in him.

If these poets are an indication of the future of poetry, I would say that the stalemate between those who believe the self is dead and those who believe in the self as an entity of known boundaries may have generated an unexpected response, one that challenges charter members of both groups to reexamine their ideologies. For rather than fulfilling the proscriptions of either prevailing experimental or conservative outlooks and reifying them in some diluted form, all three poets have started exploring their own territory. These first books by Clark, Clover, and Moxley make one thing clear: they are comers.


Click here to order The Little Door Slides Back, Madonna anno domini, or Imagination Verses directly from amazon.com.

Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review



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