Katherine Lederer and Chris Stroffolino

Jennifer Moxley
Wrong Life
Equipage Press, 1999 (c/o Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL, UK)

KL: Hey Chris, what do you think of the new Jennifer Moxley chapbook, Wrong Life?

CS:  Moxley is great for me, so great that I get a feeling sense of a particular (rare) identification with a contemporary, which is not so much a "validation" as raises questions about the nature of "projection" in reading. Like the poem in which the "I" that seemed to have been more dominant in the first few pieces suddenly seems framed as a "you" [“Soleil Cou Coupe”] and then later the "we poets" [“The Easter Lesson”] — Yet, I'm jumping ahead here. There's, as possible "characterizing" terms, the self-reflexive gesture in which the writing is about writing, but not just about writing, for the writing is very much about “being a writer” too, which raises a different (and in my opinion more profound) set of issues. And in order to engage as fully as she does in this mode, she often uses certain hyperbolic (yet self-conscious) theatrical gestures — and here's perhaps where the question of "lies" comes in, like she at times adopts the stance of "I used to have so much more faith in writing than I do now," some idyllic sense (and I take the "I" as a "personal" "I" more than a representative historical "I" a la "I Ain't Marching Anymore" by Phil Ochs) of a pre-crisis time (these poems are crisis poems) that on one level may be a response to the crisis of "working on a second full-length book, especially after the first was received well in the presses that took the care to review it, but on another level create the illusion of a sense that the PAST poems the "I" wrote did something different than that they did, that somehow they were LESS self-conscious than this current batch, and by "less self-conscious" I mean more "aesthetic" in a more "proper" way before this maximalist excess of subjectivity decided it wasn't worth sacrificing itself (and its woe, and its attempt to triumph over such woe, even by expressing it) to the aesthetic strictures it never really believed in (in Imagination Verses) but pragmatically (if that) in the first place.

So, there's this sense of rewriting the past, of building it up, so the crisis asserts itself more "brightly" as if of singular unique importance just so it can be another present that can be attended to. And this particular dynamic in Moxley's work seems to be something quite alien to a (not a value judgement here, because both modes have advantages) mode in which the poem has either chosen an external subject, and worked tightly within that structure, and is unwilling and/or unable to move outside it. OR, better, the kind of poem that may (to certain "avant-gardists") seem DUMBER than Moxley, seem to be about a slice of beef walking down the street with a pet Rubik’s cube or something, and then somehow, by making (and by foregrounding) the scene, or "statement IN the imagery" (as opposed to "show don't tell") more than Moxley does, actually is able at times to sneak in the illusion of a greater wisdom or knowledge precisely by NOT being as relentlessly intellectual/ emotional attempted visionary utopian as much of what I see in Moxley and myself (to be honest here, and admit projection).

Now, of course I'm ventriloquizing here, and I do not mean to be any more Moxley-critical than self-critical, and may very well be being more self-critical than Moxley critical — for, Moxley, perhaps has a far more stately tone of authority and earnestness even than I, and perhaps it is meant to be attended to more than I do ... though what I am most fascinated by is the (almost despite itself) faith in the intellect(ual mode) embraced here, the discursiveness that includes desires and fears, and that, by incorporating a scolding and lamenting tone, is able to seemingly include much more of a richer, fuller, sense of being and engagement with the world through language than the more minimalist skeptics and challengers to "referentiality." It is this which makes her, for me, akin (though she might reject the kinship) with the BEST more "recognizably" less-seemingly-self-analytical "referential" writing. I find that I can get lost in a Moxley poem, but not too lost, the Apollonian love of theatre informs the mediation and her monologues seems like dialogues.

KL: Something you say toward the beginning of your post made me look back at the following (from "A Transom Over Death's Door"):

My hands are shivering, I miss the writing, I know what it has and has
Not given me, here where drawn out lives grow longer in false desires
Disturbing envy and multifarious revelations of bright recycled hope.
     (p. 6)

This passage really moved me when I read it for the first time, especially coming as it does after what one might call an emotional rant. I read the poem breathlessly and then arrived here, at this place of utter deprivation. This sense of deprivation comes, for me, from Moxley's use of "recycled," which indicates that some resource has been used up. It seems that you might posit this resource to be writing itself — as it has been variously practiced over the centuries by people whom it is apparent Moxley is familiar with; I hear (as I do in the first book) a quite practiced ear — one that has been tuned on Blake, Byron, Marlowe, and other of the "darker-toned" writers of the past. So there is a sense of debt here for me.

The use of "recycled hope" also functions at a more legible level — the speaker of this poem and many of the others is obviously in, as you put it, crisis-mode, and this crisis seems to be the result of some sort of loss, whether of love, faith, mental presence, optimism, what have you. This is where I, as a reader, identify most with Moxley — with her emotional sincerity.

CS: I wonder if the "place of deprivation" is really so "utter." Because the statement "My hands are shivering, I miss the writing" occurs at the end of a long (what you call) "emotional rant,” I wonder how sincerely one can take it as a "referential" or "mimetic" statement of "not writing" (perhaps more in the sense of "the writing and i miss each other" or "everybody's window shopping/ no one is amazed/ even when it hits you, you still think it's just a graze" (McManus)?

When writing about writing does a tension open up in the word? A "discrepant awareness" (B. Evans, though not in his sense quite) as it becomes a synecdoche of itself? For the "I" that misses the writing is a written, and/or writing "I,” and thus maybe what it calls writing is not really "writing" (in the “way the world speaks”) Can writing exceed itself? Should writing exceed itself? Is everything in this room a part of me? Is the blank wider than the sky? If writing exceeds itself then it also falls short of itself; if the eye sees itself in the mirror, the mirror sees itself in the eye. Excess is discrepancy; an intellectual conundrum that can also be "an emotional rant.”

Perhaps what she means by writing then is really just an aspect, or a mode, of writing (in which, say, speech doesn't blaspheme against the "silent half of language"). If so, when she writes "I know what it has and has/Not given me,” there seems to be a confidence here, a "conversion to coherence" which may be the same thing as your "utter deprivation" insofar as you recognize (but I didn't recognize until you did) a change in the poem at this point, tonal & rhythmic. ... But, on a "statement" level, I wonder if this quote of hers is but an "empty statement” (in the sense of Dylan’s “you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone” is an empty statement because it doesn’t tell you what the DIFFERENCE is — i.e. you can think or even feel like you’re swimming but really you’re ((seen as, ah, but by what or whom?)) sinking like a stone). Sure, Moxley’s tone in “Transom” differs from Dylan’s in that it is more confessional and less exhortative, not framed here so “publicly” (even as it deals, almost subliminally, with issues of “class the common element” and “friends who will later claim the right of primogeniture” but does Moxley ever clearly delineate WHAT it is that writing "has and has/ Not given me?"

The lack of a clear answer, if you can’t find any that is, to the question (tension) these poems pose over and over (see last 3 lines of "Where I Was Going" for instance) is not necessarily negative. To tweak it a little more, one may compare the "emotional sincerity" (of which you speak) of "Fear of an Empty Life" which says "I am content when I do not think the disclosure of love is a weakness" (but then has to end with "the measure of a second is insufficient/ to leave you behind, you and all your crippling indifference") with the less "VULNERABLE" poems here—"The Second Winter,” for instance, seems to try to outcorner the "amateur heart" (or "artless pity") (pg. 12) with a certain toughness and stoic rigor of ATTITUDE with a capital A ... but is "peppered" with a longing as in this:

so will translucence from these pages
form in vacuous presence an echo
delightful for a shorter span of time
than metamorphosis ...

Here I see her wanting the ethical change, not content with mere aesthetic appeasement, and this being the ground of much of the frustration. ... Yet, even when the poem jarringly turns toward a “naked” lament for a dead friend, it's still so self-conscious and will not content itself with the "weakness" of a disclosure of love. ... So, I would propose tentatively this as a kind of contrast between modes here worth investigating further. ...

Okay, to try to sum up here. ... I want to know more about your thoughts/feelings on the "emotional sincerity" question ... it seems to me that Moxley is SO emotionally sincere she severely questions the “nature” or “rhetoric” of sincerity (the way it can turn into rhetoric, or turn out of it, etc. ...)

To what extent is a line like "Compassion itself a formal trick" (13) emotionally sincere? or "I have no natural compassionate impulse and therefore believe I have swallowed the key: poetry ...” (18) I think it is, but only if art itself is nature(?) And, in this regard, what do you make of the gestural framing second-person quotation mark "detachment" afforded in the somewhat hilarious (self) satire "Soleil Cou Coupe"?????

KL: To start with your last question first: I think “Soleil Cou Coupe” may be detached or feature a certain detachment, but, back to the notion of sincerity (especially as it seems to play out or play up against various ethical contradictions (eg historically entrenched gender inequality ((which one could also argue is merely a “formal trick” — but a trick with immense and very real ramifications))), what do you make of the following lines in the poem, which are very much not in quotation marks:

and even the dead men interrogate you, the ugliest among them
fills you with anguish and longing. They would rather look
upon the flames of your
funeral pyre from out at sea than abandon
the will of their fathers. You
like to suppose that you will never love again.

In this, I find the line “compassion itself a formal trick” quite sincere ... if one can argue that most forms of injustice rely quite heavily on “formal tricks” or, to speak in shorthand, Gramsci's notion of “hegemony” — that most forms of injustice are rhetorical and discursive even as they are “sincere” enough to cause death to millions (!), then isn't it possible for the speaker of this book to at once feel and at the same time be completely suspicious of “compassion”?

Let me, perhaps, posit a sort of objective correlative (or meta-objective correlative) of what I've been talking about here. To continue where you left off quoting from “The Second Winter,” above:

so will translucence from these pages
form in vacuous presence an echo
delightful for a shorter span of time
than metamorphoses, which moves off trace
unto design, replacing silhouettes
with more enduring form of loveliness

Here I would read the “silhouettes” to be the formal (trick) of canonicity (canonicity in its broadest sense ... as the structural entrenchment of class, race, and gender injustice as it is accomplished through any number of cultural, aesthetic, and political means) ... I think here of Plato's cave ... of the shadow on the wall and of the power, fear, and contempt that such shadows inspire.

Another thing that caught my eye in your reply, Chris, was your use of the word “excess.” It brought to mind a number of things that have been on my mind lately. The first is the most obvious: it seems to me that you are saying something very intense when you ask whether or not writing exceeds itself (or, perhaps, I should say, when you assert that writing exceeds itself). I wonder whether I actually agree with this formulation on a practical level — that is, on the level of reading itself and whether or not this assertion is, finally, a very useful term with which to discuss this work. To put it crassly: I read this book in a somewhat transparent way. I do not see Moxley as someone who is, in any strong way — in any way that goes beyond dabbling and into doctrine — doubting the reality of the self. The person(ae) in these poems strikes me as quite sincere — as a person(ae) that takes itself seriously apart from the discursivity of the poems themselves. Though the speaker is certainly aware that writing can exceed itself (or fall short of itself), and often does, I do not read the speaker as being anything other than sincere in her efforts to communicate via (yes, perhaps circuitous, undependable, and provisional) language. When the speaker says “I miss the writing,” I, personally, take this seriously and fairly literally — as at once a form of despair and a form of homage [to the salve of writing].

To bring this to a finer point: when you move from the assertion that writing exceeds or falls short of itself into the statement “Excess is discrepancy; an intellectual conundrum that can also be ‘an emotional rant,’“ I find myself questioning your basic premise further ... is “an emotional rant” the equivalent of “excess”? Is “excess” the equivalent of “discrepancy”? It seems that one could first assert that yes, all excess is a form of discrepancy, but certainly not all discrepancy is a form of excess. To put it more clearly: if, let's say, the speaker of Wrong Life expects a lot of from romantic love that is never delivered ... if the speaker here is romantically disappointed, does this mean the speaker's expectations of love are “excessive”? There seems to be this current way of speaking of “emotion” itself as a form of excess. But I wonder what the implications are if we all start calling certain emotions “excessive.” This seems to me like a normalizing move.

Here I would point you to the first poem in the book (“Stem of the Tree of Orestes”):

and thus to the future
I then thought to begin
At that time you said
I was heavy with
sentiment, but how
could I otherwise but
notion-made be as the
heir to an ancient debt?
Ever since that blood-
stained day when I
was gently handled.
and bid withhold
my tears, for, I was told,
he is an old man
war-torn and blind but
for his helpless fingers
feeling beneath
a cascade of clean bed-
clothes for a useless pair
of reading glasses, as if
it was of logic born that
infirmity had proved him
already cold. ...
     (p 4)

I read this passage quite literally (and in this I associate it with the ambivalence of Plath's Colossus) as a heavily gendered bid for a markedly mindful emotion, yes, but a sincere emotion none the less.

I also feel that you are taking the class aspect of this work at face-value; you do not (and it seems to be a pretty common way to read Moxley) question the statements about and allusions to class in the same way that you question the statements about and allusions to “feelings” and “emotions.” Why is it that the discourse on class that lines this book is not, perhaps, ironic (excessive), but that a statement as straightforward as “I miss the writing, I know what it has and has/ Not given me” is?

Or, to answer one of your questions above more directly: I think that indeed she very clearly delineates what it is the writing has and has not given her:

In “The Stem of the Tres of Orestes,” the writing (“the nose for small logics”) has placed her up high on the “misery branch” (her “leafy retreat”), where she “mouth[s] retarded lies”

In “A Transom,” the speaker laments:

no matter the works I've read
Word for word, within the Hall of Mirrors I was prophetic
Charioteers pulled by roosters across a bloody painted sky,
Gilded myths for future tourists, protectors of the perpetual
Court of light, some other spring this might be ink
For wreckage; but who are the rich and who are the thieves ...

In other words: the writing has not given her answers to the most pressing questions in the book: how to reconcile a canon rife with class and gender injustice with the writer's obvious love of literature and writing; how to reconcile a tradition of (highly troped and literalized) romantic love with the speaker's obvious and painful romantic ambivalence; “How will the world be finally pictured/ should all of the poets stop painting it?” (“The Second Winter”), and so forth. Perhaps something you say above is actually commensurate with what I am arguing here: "Here I see her wanting the ethical change, not content with mere aesthetic appeasement, and this being the ground of much of the frustration ..."

CS: Okay, when you "crassly" claim to read Moxley "transparently,” I find myself agreeing with you — Moxley is not going into Doctrine here, although I wonder if “play” is really the best term to describe whatever it is that is not doctrine in her here. … How does "play" tally with her "misery branch" for instance?& did what I write really come off that dogmatic to you?

I didn't say (or mean) she was doubting the reality of the self (and am sorry if it came off that way), but she is, I think, doubting the ability of language to accurately represent (if not stabilize) the self.

And yes, the person takes itself quite seriously apart from the discursivity of the poems, but at the same time (as you also mention) the persona(e) is aware — at least at times — of the discursivity of the poems, and that transparency is a difficult issue (like I still think there's a tension between the "author" and the "speaker" of these poems; that they do not always  necessarily equal each other, etc.) ...

Is "discursivity" (in the "Helena" poem) perhaps "the necessary lie" she mentions, or maybe even a "necessary evil" (like Mayer's "a poem must become a political nothingness text"), so that, for instance, when she ends the poem with:

and my shadow despite metamorphosis
is ever misjudged for that of the dove"

which in my silly, associative, mind reminds me of the "poor immigrant" who "uses all his power to do evil but in the end is always left so alone.

Anyway, would you grant that the speaker is aware of the DANGERS of what we've been calling "writing exceeding itself"? Of the "easy temptation" of its spurious plenitude for her? Perhaps this way of phrasing it would be more acceptable to you? Yet she's also aware, I think, of the dangers of taking herself (or the self, specifically the TORTURED self) too seriously ... (here, I think of O'Hara's psychomachic formulation in his short "Notes on Design, etc." about finding a middle ground between ...”[Well, I’ll get it for you if you want me to quote it in full…] and see Moxley somewhat similarly position(ed)(ing). This does not mean that she's NOT "SINCERE in her efforts to communicate via language" as you were kinda claiming I was claiming. ...

As for the term "excess" (which, as you know, carries a lot of academic baggage since the late 70s), I certainly do not wish to ghettoize it by assenting to what you detect as "the current way of speaking of “emotion” itself as a form of excess" And (though I may ponder over why you put "emotion" in quotes in your formulation) very much agree with you when you deride such an equation of emotional utterances themselves with "excess" as a "normalizing move.” I, too, have been known to be called excessive, pathetic, etc. Excess is not necessarily pejorative, and one may think of that "dark-toned" Blake writer you claimed Moxley is kin to, who wrote "excess of joy weeps; excess of sorrow laughs" which I like because it suggests that "opposites" are only so if judged against a reductive grid of “common-sense” prose, and that extremes may have more  in common with each other than either of them do with the middle or muddle (like pain has more in common with pleasure than it does with more benign sorrow or ennui — not that there need be a value judgment here, rendering "heightened ambivalences" into an ethical standard or anything). Or, I could also invoke the Wordsworth passage in the PRELUDE in which he argues (or comes, feelingly, to the point) that REASON IS BUT PASSION IN DRAG, or that those who pretend not to be emotional, through a certain adherence to a discourse of reason, are as emotional, as subjective, as those they often critique. ...

Anyway, perhaps what I see in Moxley is what you mean by "markedly-mindful-emotion, but a sincere emotion nonetheless."

Okay, now as for your seeming to claim there is a double-standard in my  granting her references to "class" an authenticity I somehow deny her emotional pain and torture, I feel put upon the judge here to deny the charges.

(1) I don't think I ever said that Moxley is NOT emotionally sincere. I just said that she's not always "emotionally sincere" in any simple way. The tension (dare I say dramatic, however lyric) I find as central in these poems is between emotional sincerity and her questioning of it, a questioning that is itself emotionally sincere (I think of DUINO ELEGIES here), a doubt that exists as she casts part of herself into the role of the harshest judge she can imagine against sincerity (or even intuition) and then, in raking her head over the coals as such, is occasionally able to come out "the other side." ...

(2) I brought "class" into the discussion not so much in order to sidestep that issue, but to, er, enrich it. It doesn't have to be either/or (in fact, the way you later bring in political gender concerns later might in some ways be analogous to the way I bring in class concerns. The references to "class" I mentioned occur in what YOU called an "emotional rant" in "Transom.” Now, I have to go back to this point again (because maybe I wasn't clear before): If I take your reading of the poem at "face-value," it seems you're arguing that this "emotional rant" MUST mimetically refer to (since you're reading the last lines of the poem transparently?) a time BEFORE the poem was written. Otherwise, those last lines can not be literally true. Thus, it seems to me, in your formulation, the poem is more truly its final (post-rant) lines than it is the earlier "rant" bulk in which class (and other) issues actively prevent the speaker from writing. Now this is certainly a valid reading, but the AUTHOR was certainly writing, or being written, all along (even in rant-mode) even if the speaker wasn't. No? I'm sorry to belabor this, but it seems that you assume (transparently) that the speaker IS the author, that there is a simple identity here between the two. ... If so (or even if not), could you elaborate?

For me, the conclusion of that poem, whether read as a "place of utter deprivation" or "a hard-won faith" (or whatever) does not negate what went before it (the end doesn't necessarily crown all). ... Yet, that being said, I agree with your point that Moxley frames the concerns with class and humanity's viciousness to itself in a personal, subjective, emotionally sincere, way, and that this framing is paramount. To answer your question: the reason I didn't question her references to class with the same pressure I questioned your readings of her as "emotionally sincere" is for the same reason I try to find the more "personal" and "subjective" side in a writer like, say, Bob Perelman (classic mid to late 80s Perelman) because his public side is more foregrounded. (Digression: 10 or so years ago, when I was shopping a review of BP around, Hejinian told me that I was ignoring ((or irresponsibly downplaying)) that BP was, in her words, “a political person.” Yet, both are in the work, as both are in Moxley’s, and perhaps one of my flaws is that I, like Delmore Schwartz, “miss matchless significance many times” and am looking beneath the so-called surface too much …)

I do not mean to overemphasize the "political" at the expense of the "personal" in Moxley. If the "political" were more foregrounded, I would probably question it more — but there's no need to do that since the poems largely do ("ain't no use in talkin” to me; it's the same as talkin” to you"). Nor do I mean to claim that the moment (and/or speaker) that says "I miss the writing" is not being sincere, only to claim that that statement complicates rather than negates the earlier part of the poem. I wanted to explore (relate) a tension. ... I wanted to point out that there are times when the speaker (or speakers when the times) misses the NOT writing too. ...

Hmmmm ... I hope this doesn't sound too cranky ...

I do think you really SOAR when you bring in "gender politics." ... Perhaps I did not read this particular quote (the "dead men" & "rooster" one ...) in Moxley with the same sensitivity to gender issues as you did, seeing the "I" (whether as "Jennifer Moxley" or a critique/extension of the traditional poetic "I" — of course, as a Shakespearean, I'd argue that the "critique of the traditional poetic ‘I’" is itself a tradition that goes back at least 400 years) as potentially either female or male, who is DISGUSTED by the POSSIBILITY OF BEING CANONIZED as much as by the possibility of NOT being a blessed crucial cog in a "canon rife with class and gender injustices" (in your terms). If all canonization, at its varying levels (and, on one or two levels, Moxley, it might be argued is ALREADY [being] Canonized) offers the writer (ah, but what does it offer the reader?) is that it positions the authorial self at a place in which her creations are but "GILDED MYTHS FOR FUTURE TOURISTS," perhaps the injustice being lamented is not simply that, up until relatively recently, only men got canonized BUT, at least as profoundly, that the FAME-GAME itself, even if one "wins" it, does not allow fulfillment, is hollow, etc. ...

Perhaps this QUESTION would be differently for a woman than for a man — in the sense that since canonization (or even poetic fame in one's lifetime) is still a relatively new thing for women — that women would nowadays be more likely to embrace it (even if only for strategic reasons) than men would. ... Yet, obviously these "dead men" who "would rather look/ upon the flames of your funeral pyre from out at sea than abandon/ the will of their fathers" (if we assume the "you" here is gendered female, which I'll assume as you assume) are, in their own twisted way, as eager to be "canonized" as the women (and "dead" could thus refer to the lack of communication, metamorphosis) ...

So, could one say that Moxley is not merely lamenting the gender injustice of the canon but also lamenting the whole poetic fame game (regardless of which sex achieves prominence through it; regardless of whether it is MEN or PEOPLE who have appropriated the will of their fathers while leaving their hopeless mothers in the dust)? Could one say that THIS Is this the (Appollonian) SILHOUETTE you mention? And is it a silhouette Moxley is warning women about becoming as much lamenting traditional men for? Do you feel, as I do, that what may be most revolutionary (and even feminist) here may be Moxley's realization that what men have historically called success is not true success, and that Moxley refuses to get swept up in it (well, she lets herself get swept up in it ON THE PAGE, IN THE POEMS, and in doing so brilliantly violates a taboo too many "lyric-minded" and/or minimalist poets adhere to, that needs to cut cut cut to create an illusion of "too good to be true" exemplary personae, which may very well actually cause them to be MORE swept up in it off the page, because they refuse the PURGE idea of poetry Moxley embraces)?

Yes, Moxley speaks, and publicly. Yet because she so often accepts a mode of interiority rife with an inner tension (that is not strictly inner — oh yeah, the objective correlative) and misery branches, it seems that in offering up a place of pain that becomes, through art, a compassion (I'd like to consider the OTHER compassion quote a little more, the one about the lacking the "compassionate impulse" which you didn't seem to address in my last post), Moxely struggles with words that have become so debased through being used to defend injustices (as you so rightly point towards) and attempts to restore meaning to them precisely by questioning these "received" (ready-made) ones. Would you agree that there is a process of unnaming that is thus central here, a suspicion of the "smooth utterance" and/or of a single word (or phrase's) ability to serve as a referential anchor, hinge, or what have you? And is it possible that such suspicion is also her freedom? Would you argue that Moxley speaks often from the place of HAVING NOTHING (or not having anything) TO LOSE and that this may, even in 1999, be gender-inflected, insofar as these "dead men" are, by contrast, duped into thinking they have something to lose). ...

I don't know if I find Moxley a compassionate writer, but at least she RAISES THE ISSUE OF IT (which is more than I can say for many). Compassion, it seems, is something she has to find or create; and by questioning her own ability to feel for others she feels more strongly than those who assume it, and, sure as a word can slip in and out of felt significance, I think she herself would be the first to admit she has a long way to go. ...

Ah, but where, Katherine, do we go?

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