Oppen Sesame


With an iron fist, avant-gardists soundly thumped poetry of lazy sentiment by scrabbling verse into Steinian fragments. Now with these poets manning the academic mothership rather than hastily stapling chapbooks, a younger generation is imploding invention by returning to the lyric. We have bards from the Ashbery circle jerk whose jottings are inevitably couched in (yawn) pastiche. Then there is Jennifer Moxley, whose first book, Imaginary Verse, was hailed by her Language-spawned colleagues as reconfiguring the lyric. With her follow-up, The Sense Record, Moxley rigorously digs deeper into the tradition—a good handful of the poems are in blank verse and a couple of them are sonnets—but more striking is her regression to romantic sentiment.

Moxley’s dense stanzas are in restless, helical winds that track her “untenanted cloud corridor of. . . indistinct thought.” She refashions sentiment into fashionable philosophical discourse: “Eros tell me why, without love,/without hate, listening/to the softly falling rain upon the rooftops of the city,/my heart has so much pain. What I write in truthtoday/tomorrow will be in error.” The pathos of her poetics is not tied to humdrum humanist narratives; she prefers to bandy abstract yet aching questions that ask whether solitary imagination can synthesize with the material world’s relentless data.

In her essay “Invective Verse,” Moxley quips, “There is a specter haunting poetry and it’s not the Paris Review,” saying that what holds poets back is their own political lassitude. As social critic, Moxley takes cues from B-list Modernist George Oppen (his opus “Of Being Numerous” is mentioned in this book’s first poem), though her project is unlike Oppen’s concern with grand collectivity. Often using the apostrophe, she prefers to investigate the intimate collisions of romantic exchange to subvert the gendered poles of self and object. The more specific dragons she slays, however, are too close to her circle as she questions the ersatz Marxist and male-driven fin de siècle: “The soi-distant Avant-Gardist builds a pyramid scheme, a last ditch pitch to the lure of Empire.” Her digs are well founded. But given her inspiring talent coupled with her passionate beliefs, I expected her political vision to have more girth. In subjects of reflection and intimacy, her poetry is a wonder. I only ask for more invective in her verse.

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