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Modernism, Again

Cole Swenson


The Sense Record and Other Poems

Jennifer Moxley
Edge Books, $12.50 (paper)

The Guns and Flags Project
Geoffrey G. O’Brien
University of California Press, $16.95 (paper)

8 In her recent book 21st Century Modernism, Marjorie Perloff proposes that the modernist projects begun by Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Velimir Khlebnikov, and others are, after a long hiatus, being taken up again by today’s poets. Though the contemporary poetry that Perloff discusses looks very different from Jennifer Moxley’s and Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s, they, too, take their cues from modernist aesthetics and ethics.

The epigraphs to these books immediately alert us to their sympathies. O’Brien begins The Guns and Flags Project, his first collection of poems, with a line from Wittgenstein’s 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 O’Brien follows throughout, leading to conclusions lit “from somewhere else.” For the epigraph of The Sense Record, Moxley’s second full-length collection, the poet offers a line from Louis Zukofsky’s “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.

Moxley’s 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 she’s 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 ones—“erelong,” “ever and anon”—from 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 sampling—creating 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, she’s 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
in the magazine of Plain Spokeness
where men flaunt their lack of pretense—
they’ll screw all comers, even the genuine
daughters of the New Obscurantism,
who head up the swollen liberal guilt wing . . .

But Moxley doesn’t uncritically embrace the avant-garde, either:

The soi-disant Avant-Gardist builds
a pyramid scheme, a last ditch pitch
to the lure of Empire, the run on epigraphs
siphons off the silo of philos—precocious
intelligence taking time off for cocktails . . .

In fact, The Sense Record breaks every contemporary experimentalist rule. Rather than spare and fragmentary, Moxley’s 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 Moxley’s 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, it’s 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 O’Brien’s work, though it’s more veiled and put to different uses. Whereas Moxley orders her poems by sculpting variations on formal ideals, O’Brien appeals to the rudiments of form—strong rhythms and compelling sound relationships—to keep an otherwise anarchical text from taking flight altogether. O’Brien 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, “It’s 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 self—as a construct, a display. The book’s diffuse points of view and paucity of the first-person singular convey this more deeply, as does O’Brien’s freewheeling language, which flows into nearly seamless writing, continually pulling the text into the present moment of reading. In fact, you’re so present that it’s often difficult to keep your mind on his arguments and developments. They are there, intricate and interesting, but they are not the point—language is, and the fact that it’s 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 Pound’s “use no word you wouldn’t in the force of some emotion actually say,” O’Brien uses no word you wouldn’t 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, O’Brien 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, O’Brien—like Wittgenstein—only proves that it cannot be so. But this doesn’t 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 proliferation—perhaps 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
destroyed, and without a hurricane, or any other name
for encouragement come riding off the sea.
What is the fate of the surface in destruction?
Some would say it is multiplied . . . (26)

Other poems similarly refuse to follow a negative course of events:

As oil is aghast on any surface
first the messenger part of the sky ran
to the bishop part and spoke in uneven tones,
the night was pronounced a trainwreck
from which each body had been thrown clear
and was walking around, stunned to be unhurt . . .” (56)

This optimism refuses to give in to despair—which 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 O’Brien’s love of elementals. He doesn’t 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 O’Brien’s writing is already showing us. It proliferates, breaking down into countless facets—line, phrase, word—each of which carries a full poetic charge. <


Cole Swenson, author of seven books of poems, including Such Rich Hour, is visiting professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review



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