The Little Door Slides Back
Sun & Moon Press, $10.95 (paper)
Madonna anno domini
Louisiana State University Press, $19.95, $11.95 (paper)
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
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
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
High noontide in my interior: the red deer
wends out of my ravine when I wave, the
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.
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 . . .
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:
Model Homes. Kisses from a decorator named Dots.
Impregnated by an alien duneflower.
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
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
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
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. . .
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
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.