The Open Secret by Jennifer Moxley (Flood Editions, 2014)
Reviewed by Lucy Sheerman
Jennifer Moxley’s The Open Secret published in 2014 contains two long poems “Coastal” and “Evacuations” which form the core of this intelligent, complex book. In it Moxley examines the practice and process of writing while also considering what the public role or effect of the poem might be. This explicit concern and engagement with the publication of a poem, of the work in relation to the world and hence its work in the world, appears to have brought the book more widespread attention than Moxley’s earlier poetry collections. It received the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award and was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.
I was gripped by this book, in part because I have paid close attention to Moxley’s writing since Stephen Rodefer, so instrumental in making connections between British and American writers, showed me some of her work while I was setting up a poetry press in the mid ‘90s. In fact her Enlightenment Evidence was the first book that rem•press published in 1996. I saw in Moxley’s poetry a concerted address to the pressures, constraints, influences that I also found myself working within at that time. The language movement, with its attention to the role of the reader as co-creator of meaning, the materiality of the signifier, and the distancing from the role of poetry as a site of personal expression was a significant influence on a number of emerging writers in the States and, largely through the invitations and attentions of the Cambridge school, in the UK. A long running interest in her work as it has developed over the years has chimed with my own growing understanding of the reading and writing of poetry beyond the pressures and pains of those early influences.
In this book, Moxley eschews the broken syntax, fragmentation and partial obscurity of some of her earlier work, although the implicit questions and problems such techniques foreshadow remain. It is a direction towards clarity, a need for direct, unadorned or undistorted communication, that I recognised on a gut level. Here too Moxley eschews the problematised position of the narrator that you might have encountered in earlier work such as Often Capital. This is not to say that there is no awareness of these constraints and framing conceits in the work, of precisely what they are and do, nor does it preclude a recognition of their limitations and effects. This book shows the intensity with which that understanding and insight can be deployed while moving away from the explicit concern with unpicking and unravelling those constraints as an act of resistance and challenge, an aesthetic in and of itself.
In her critical work Moxley has defined herself as explicitly ‘committed to the tradition of “speech-based” poetries’. The Open Secret sees her grasp more clearly the complex and bewildering responsibilities of the lyric voice. Armed with the understanding of all the vexed appropriations and silences that such an assertion summons, she chooses to embrace the potential and possibilities of the lyric “I”. Moxley discusses the possibilities and limitations represented by this use of voice in her essay on Robert Creeley and the Lyric:
‘The necessary dialectic at work in the lyric stance is between the desire for the representation of a human totality, and the impossibility of realizing that desire except through its mute particulars. It is a paradox that proposes the need to risk settled definitions at every point, an idealistic proposition which, although impractical and perhaps even undesirable, is nevertheless crucial, for it challenges our tendency to symbolically conquer our surroundings and thus stop thought.’
These concerns with the responsibility of giving voice and the associated risks of appropriation, closure and silence are examined, enacted and acted out in The Open Secret. The long poem “Coastal” is breathtaking in its scope and its complex measuring of the relationship between ideas and politics and the lived experience of them. Moxley returns to a consideration of the length of this poem several times. ‘Feeling panicky about going on so long I show / this to Steve in draft form. “So this is your 9/11 poem?”’(25). Later, ‘It was just a train of thought. That started it. . . A train of thought about a trainless state’ (25). In an ironic undercutting of the motif in the same poem she observes her kitten playing with string in an image which rapidly extends to assume the lines and the ‘sheer drop’ and ‘falling’ of the twin towers: ‘Nothing like a piece of string to focus the attention. Or a line of poetry, snaking down the length of the page’ (20). These poems are considerably longer than any of the other work, setting aside her sequences and substantial autobiography, that I have seen by her. The Publishers Weekly review of The Open Secret states that ‘her poems surprise—despite a tendency to run long—and are consistently candid in their exploration of the “I.” … Moxley’s two longest and most fulfilling poems, “Coastal” and “Evacuations,” act as pillars that form its emotional core.’ Moxley uses the sustained focus offered by the long poem form to reflect upon and inquire into the formation, development and exploration of thought and, by extension, understanding. It is an undertaking to continue to pay attention and return to ideas, or an idea as it develops, that the long poem form uniquely permits: ‘No day, no hour, not even a second can be / adequately written in one sitting’ (18).
There is an implicit connection between the intimate quotidian experience that writing frequently documents and journal writing in the poem “Moments Without Vision” where Moxley recognises the ‘guilt’ of ‘an isolated writer’ who records how she has been ‘wasting time with a diary. It is an avoidance of “life” and “work”. What the value of poetry is, and what its purpose might be are questions the collection continually returns to and reflects upon. The minute detail of what is observed and how it affects perception is carefully noted and analysed here. The writing records an ongoing attention and a sustained focus, a register of the movement of thoughts and ideas as they develop. Here we see the poet’s ideas and influences taking on definition and resistance, as she records in “Coastal”:
‘I know (unscientifically) that many of my ideas
tried to get in for many years before I actually let them.
This did not happen out of stubbornness, but out of
a misplaced loyalty to a past I was always catching up with.
Defending defunct ideas that changed me as though
they were people in the room I might
unwittingly offend.’ (21)
These ideas or people in the room are, perhaps, the voices in the head, on the shelves by her writing desk, the eyes peering over her shoulder at the screen who shape and influence the writing process. To dissent or let them go is somehow a form of disloyalty even as it precludes the assimilation of new ideas, crucial in the changing world that the book describes. Moxley returns to this conceit in “Evacuations” where she more explicitly contests the influence of some of these ‘defunct ideas’ and the absent ‘people in the room’ she might ‘offend’. Reading and the work of other writers are important to Moxley. Her work is filled with allusion, reference, direct quotation; these are moral and aesthetic touchstones within her own grasping for the right word or phrase with which to frame the thought or idea, to find the beauty, or ugliness, in veracity. She does not shrink from ugliness or grotesquery here: ‘at the end of the work day I take off my vinyl boots I then must “unstick” my thin lady / socks from my feet. The two seem to have become one. As you see, feet are very present’ (52). In an echo of the continued influence of ideas that must be ‘unstuck’ this leads to the memory of a pair of shoes ‘that I kept on wearing even though they hurt a lot… because they conformed to an idea that I couldn’t let go of, even when it caused me pain’ (52). It is in this section of the poem that Moxley frames the Steinian constraints that she has applied to its creation. It is written throughout in, and about, the present. This leads to the further thought: ‘Now that I see that feet are connected to ideas perhaps I should think more about them in the past. But I am not going to think about the past anymore’ (52). The poem thus becomes increasingly preoccupied with the absence of past and future and the loss of quotation and reading that this ‘experiment’ denies. While the poet laments the absence of quotation and reading as ‘I write and think about the present, / and try hard not to quote things, which is my / “experiment”’ (55) the poem also brings an increased and increasingly ironic focus on the pains and pressures of the present, upon feeling which happens always in the present so that: ‘I am always having to pee in the present / …This is / an exhausting phenomenon that comes with / having a body in the present. It seems that when / you write about the present you are forced to / write about embarrassing things that the “active” / reader may think self-indulgent’(52 -3).
Moxley plays with the focus of the language writers on the idea of a proactive reader, busily engaged in spinning meaning from the raw material of the text presented by the writer. However, the act of reading imaged as a mutual, euphoric and climactic act is eschewed here for the figure of the exhausted poet, waking in the night to pee and conscious of exposure, vulnerability and of the outraged and repelled curiosity of the busy and politically altruistic reader in search of action not self-absorption. Attention to the moment is posited here as a luxury of feeling which is innate in Moxley’s close examination of the present and the volumes that each moment can offer.
Moxley quietly asserts herself into the radical American poetic tradition in this poem, even as she distances herself from certain aspects of it. ‘I cannot accompany you into the abstract’ she states in an address to a friend in “Coastal” ‘but grow more narrative by the year, / saying things to get them said, / feeling no leisure to take old risks’ (17).
The urgency to say things, the pressure of the feeling intensely brought by lived experience fills “Evacuations”. Both poems are coloured by the sure knowledge of time passing, of its running out and the need ‘to make work that matters’ (17). Here is a poem written in the continuous present, an ‘experiment’. The poet looks neither forward nor back but only at the moment. There is an intense and often uncomfortable attention to the present therefore which creates a restlessness, both in the reader and in the writer. It echoes the dense heaviness of Stein’s writing with its preoccupations with the appetites and drives of the present: ‘My syntax all of a sudden sounds like Gertrude Stein’s syntax. She repeats to have structure, and profundity. But also to make a point?’ (52). Moxley would never assert such claims for her writing. In “Coastal” she ironically undercuts such a proposition with the line:
“Oh preachy,” says the pencil sharpener,
with its genuine claim to making points, “for the last time
the name of the game is NAMING, not explaining.” (24)
“Evacuations” is a poem in ten sections of varying length. As the opening line suggests, its concern is ‘to write and think about the present, / and try hard not to quote things’, a focus which is made explicit towards the end of the fourth section when she describes it as an ‘artificial exercise, an “experiment,” in order to think about the present’ (54). Moxley fluctuates between an optimistic confidence in the capacity of poetry to connect and sustain thought, to carry the weight of understanding and explanation, and anxiety about petty dead ends and distractions and the tedious interruptions of the body’s ‘pains and pressures’ to which a poetry of the present must always be vulnerable. The immediate present of her focus of attention becomes bound up with the presence of the writer in this poem. It is a study in how much massed weight of meaning and of connection can be carried by the sentence, by the poem. It is a burden that prompts the statement, repeated twice, that ‘I have decided to give up on memory. It is too exhausting and you cannot keep up with it.’ (54) The degree to with the poet struggles with the self-imposed constraint of the present reflects a sense of the ennui or boredom inherent in the state, it is ‘drab and flat’ (55). It may be visceral and immediate but without past and future the poem is deprived of the luxury of looking back and learning from the past:
‘The present is best when thinking
about the past. Not necessarily your own past,
but any past. In other words reading.’ (51)
Quotation is also banished in this experiment because not thinking about the past means not thinking about books and ‘the present is just syntax and grammar’ (57).
Moxley recasts Stein’s repetition in “Evacuations” which opens with the phrase, ‘the present is resistance, punctured every third day / by a minor enthusiasm’ (50). It is a technique which requires the machinery of the long poem to permit the permutations and inflections of the repetitions to gain traction and purchase upon the material. The phrase might also seem to reference Hejinian’s quixotic repetition of phrases that recur throughout My Life. In this phrase which is repeated twice we see Moxley setting up the appeal to a larger political concern, the resistance of the present with its dual meanings of currency and gift and the rapid, trademark deflation of such a project which is ‘punctured…by a minor enthusiasm’. In this poem of the present the consciousness of presence and resistance is destabilised by the wavering compulsions of greed, a trope for consumption, consumerism and commerce. In the first instance the poet is distracted by the hunger for a new coat and in the second, when the phrase is repeated again, by the ‘anticipation of a really delicious steak’ (50-51). The third time, Moxley alters the phrase and it is at this point that she makes the connection with writers such as Hejinian explicit, and with another form of greed.
The subject matter of “Evacuations” is, as its title suggests, both the lived experience of the body and the wider experience of bodies living in the world. This long poem is concerned with evacuations that are bodily and the evacuation of bodies. The word ‘evacuations’ can mean a process of emptying and hints at the way in which the poem empties out the meaning or possibilities of the thoughts it examines as it continually discards one moment for the next. It parallels another meaning, the process of emptying the bowels, in which writing figures as a kind of discharge of excess or waste. There are resonances with the account in “Coastal” of a homesick craving for a ‘patty melt…the ache of a hunger for something you could once find right down the street’ (27). It is an ‘ache’ couched within the larger metaphor of the body’s submission to the threat of illness. The thought of eating beef segues into an account of colonic endoscopy: ‘When the body’s content empties out, / the “you” of convictions no longer exists’ (28). The evacuations of the present, its seemingly endless exchange, cannot avert the certainty of closure – the end of the life and the end of the poem. Its other meaning is the expulsion or forcible removable of people from situations of danger. What drives the need for evacuation? Could it be the threat of the past or fear of the future? Or is it simply a process, a restless, continually changing narrative state which insists on and is defined by a series of expulsions?
The focus on the present is, of course, synonymous with the idea of novelty and Moxley makes this tangible in her descriptions of the gratifications of acquisition and appetite. She describes the hunger for a new coat although the present one is ‘fine’ as well the contemplation of a new recipe for filet mignon (pp50-51). Mignon, translates as tender, a subtle echo of the consumption she mocks here. She is knowing, both about the pleasure of anticipation and the counter-pleasure found in self denial:
The seesaw of desire for a new coat. Thoughts
of how stylish a new coat would be. Disappointment
at the fact that there is no one in the region
you want to impress with a stylish new coat.
The mental rehearsal of the passive-aggressive
comments about your inappropriate stylishness. (50)
There is an awareness of the triviality of the impulse to acquire new things that is tempered with a delight in the gratification of that whim. Moxley’s imagined future as the owner of the new coat can also be read as a trope for her role as writer. It is a signifier, which clothes the poet in difference, singling her out from others even as she states that she does not wish to impress or be marked out or exposed. The metaphors of the coat and the beef signal the external and internal appetites and needs of the body, its requirement to be clothed and fed. The poem’s focus on the present invokes the body’s channeling of pleasure and pain, ‘the seesaw of desire’.
Moxley links her own experimentation with writing in the present to the ‘poets who practice “new sentences”’, amongst whom you would certainly include the language writers, a group with which Moxley has longstanding connections. Noting that she did not choose to write them herself ‘because both the present and the sentence bored me’, in one of her ironic multi-layered asides she adds, ‘Now is my time’ (56). Moxley’s dry tone and use of wit underpins a quite serious attention to the long sentence; an ‘experiment’ with the present and with the history of its deployment. This critique of the ‘new-sentence poets’ is arrived at through the process of writing in the present, writing into, alongside and against the influence of these authors. While acknowledging her debts, she does not choose to emulate too closely Stein’s use of continuous present and repetition: ‘she takes it “way too far”’ (59). Moxley also banishes quotation from her writing, an “experiment” which permits an observation of its use by the new-sentence poets who were, in part, using the technique to deflect and depersonalise the hold of the ‘lyric I’: ’They were not authors, but “quoters”’ (56). For Moxley the flaw in the new-sentence technique she describes, with its tacit rejection of the self-hood of the writer, is in the set of choices, both aesthetic and political and highly idiosyncratic, which such repetition and self-quoting asserts:
while rejecting the “self,” quoted themselves,
as I have done in this “experiment,” by repeating
the first line of a stanza, or phrases I’ve grown fond of,
like “the present is enthusiasm, punctuated every third
day by a minor resistance.” (56)
The abstraction of the writer’s self-expression and the erosion of their ‘authority’ in this writing is implicit in the collapse of past and future into the ‘enthusiasm’ of reading in the present. However, the intention to reconfigure the power dynamics between reader and writer by ‘new-sentence writers’ has the converse effect: ‘people often give authority to writers who make a big show of being against it, because authority is such an impressive thing to attack’ (56). Stephen Burt states in his review of the book that ‘she used to be one of those writers. Moxley began in the 1990s avant-garde, writing poems that refused the comforts of prose sense as they attacked the comforts of capitalism. She is not like that now.’ Moxley acknowledges her own greed and desire in this regard in the third iteration of the repeated device:
the new-sentence writers of old, however,
I want authority very badly, but unfortunately
it is not something you can just “get,”
like a new coat when you have the money,
other people must give it to you. (56)
Moxley is concerned with the balance between the authority of the writer and the exercise of control of the reader throughout this work. The poem is punctuated with little asides to the reader, conspiratorial, encouraging, anxious. She reflects on her repetition of the opening phrase, in an address to the literal reader beyond the page, and asks for the collusion of the reader in her play with irony and self-quotation. It is a gesture that subtly ironises the complex lyric theatrics and self-referential flourishes of the new-sentence authors while also emulating its accomplishments:
Did you notice that in
my illustration of how poets who write new sentences
self-quote my own self-quote was a misquote?
The present, no longer resistance, became enthusiasm. (57)
In this recasting the poem is swept along in the present on a wave of enthusiasm. It functions both as a commentary on the new-sentence project and a literal expression of the degree to which the present tense is shown to be driven by hunger and enthusiasms, a site not of resistance but fetish. It is a sense that contrasts with the original phrase ‘the present is resistance, punctured…by … enthusiasm’ (50) with its insistence that the moment is separate or even resistant to what has already been even as it must also be assimilated into the thoughts and consciousness framed by the poem. It is a kind of deceleration only tempered by the distraction of an enthusiasm, a longing grounded in the future, ‘a little leap of hope’(53) for a coat or steak. By the time we arrive at this later stage of the poem, when the phrase recurs, the poet has asserted that stories from the past are ‘irrelevant’ (52) the imperative to accumulate sense and meaning has faded and the shock of memory, resurfacing from the past, bringing happiness or unhappiness, has been set apart for the purposes of this experiment. Now resistance, of the kind demonstrated by the new-sentence poets and by Moxley herself in her other writing, has been usurped by the present. This is where the drive, the longing, is located within this experiment.
Moxley’s use of repetition to consider such self-reflexive textual concerns is a technique which is only possible within the frame of a longer poem. Its scope offers a linguistic environment of sufficient scale to permit an exploration of the effect of repetition within a poem that focuses on the present of the act of reading. Its percussive impact on sense and register takes on a momentum that carries it through the continuous present of this work, allowing the reader to be aware of how their encounter with the voice of the poem has been plotted. Repetition here offers dramatic definition for the shifting encounters with the poem’s present. It also figures as a way of recasting, and even reliving previous failed or unassimilable experience and transforming it into success, an experience that is meaningful or authoritative:
‘Repetition is also a convenient device.
If I just repeat things, people will take note. If I think
about the past my life will seem to have a kind of
structure. But sometimes you need a new recipe.’ (51)
Repetition, she suggests, is an expression of dissatisfaction with the present, with oneself, with the past, with the agent and agency of the work. It figures, in its Steinian sense, as a mode of carrying and transporting meaning which acquires new nuances and freight with each repeat. The dislocation of past and future and a restless longing for a new recipe in this poem present both an alternative to the prescriptions of the new-sentence writers and an echo of the enthusiasms which shape its ‘resistance.’ Resistance I understand to be the poem as it is written and read in the present, the kind of reading which Moxley describes, with heavy irony, as ‘passive’. She distances herself from the ‘active reader’, intrusively disturbing her sleep, and intent on shaping and interpreting her writing according to their own past, present and future. She creates this sense of reservation because they are ‘not writing in the same sense that I am writing. They are reading’ (58). Moxley prefers to imagine reading as an act which does not instigate a struggle for authority between reader and writer. Reminding the reader of the excess and spontaneity her enthusiasms for a new coat and steak revealed, she says, ‘leave reading to those who like to read in the old-fashioned way. Back when reading was as valued as being frugal.’ (58) Moxley makes clear that she finds pleasure in the old fashioned ‘repetition of patterns, like the way the first stanza sets up certain expectations that the second and third stanzas conform to’ (59). She asks whether this pleasure, this sense of the dynamic force of repetition and expectation within a poem is ‘self-indulgent… a Romantic construct that is completely beholden to the free market’ (59). In “Evacuations”, as its title suggests, she demonstrates that an embrace of the pleasures of the rhythms and patterns of poetry does not obviate the responsibility to take account of the political dynamics and pressures of context for poet, reader and poem. In Moxley’s terms there is a responsibility as a poet to offer an account which balances the pressures of the world with the desire to explore and unravel the present. Here we see that reading is also both a pleasure and a responsibility which she likens to the desire to live within your means (‘being frugal’). Your means might here be understood to also mean the limits of the lived experience of the body which this experiment of writing about the present foregrounds.
The long poem format that allows Moxley to conduct a substantial inquiry into the techniques and strategies of the new sentence. “Evacuations” represents a virtuosic delivery of a sustained interrogation of the use of the present even as the entire poem is delivered in it. If, as Burt states, the work represents a departure from so-called ‘experimental’ writing then it is interesting that this departure is couched repeatedly within the terms of an ‘experiment’. His statement that ‘she used to be one of them’ with all its connotations of reformation and tribalism both is and isn’t the point. The long poem template offers a more subtle and nuanced effect. There is no doubt that Moxley uses the poem to distance herself from a number of what might be termed the ‘tenets’ of the new sentence writers. Nevertheless it is also true that the work is so deeply influenced and reflective of that history, of the process of arrival at the point of writing that it could not exist without it. The response to and rejection of these ideas is at the core of the ‘resistance’ that she describes and enacts. It also seems clear that the long poem form itself offers different possibilities. Many of the familiar tropes that shape her earlier, shorter work feature here – an uneasiness about capitalism, a concern with voice and authority, the play with dissonant, conflicting points of view and perspectives and a focus on the aesthetic and moral qualities of poetry. The cost and the gift of the long poem form is the pressure to keep the lyric “I” and a coherent narrative structure because without it the poem collapses into monotony and impenetrability.
It is not that the long poem form precludes experiment with such devices; rather, it allows Moxley the space, the time and in some way permission to consider, reflect and observe from many angles. It provides a field in which is possible both resistance that is worthwhile and a continuity that is worth holding on to. Some of the techniques that Moxley uses, such as repetition, are simply more inventive and nuanced when deployed within the long poem format. Moxley’s use of the long poem form also showcases the working process of a writer at the peak of their powers, able to take up the full narrative potential of the long poem, to inventively play with the long sentence, repetition, extended focus and concentration the form offers and create a work that is deeply satisfying, inviting numerous re-readings that continually offer new connections and layers.
It also seems clear that there is, to a degree, a more pressing sense of mortality at work in these longer poems and the sense of hurry this generates does not permit the luxury of disconnection or the risk of misreading. Instead, as we have seen, Moxley is ‘saying things to get them said, / feeling no leisure to take old risks’(17). In her focus on the present as revealed by ‘bladders and feet’ and the way in which ‘they press on us and pain us’ we see her rehearse both the stepping away from pain and the spectacle of the ageing body as well as what they reveal of our experience and understanding of the present. The pressure and pain keep us in the present, continually retreating from the ending and inevitable silencing that final line must bring. The long poem, perhaps also represents in some sense the fear and difficulty of reaching that end. The various pressures and pains I discovered in Moxley’s book with a sense of fascinated recognition have extended my commentary far beyond what I had originally conceived and so I will conclude as she does:
‘They make me think:
this has got to stop.’ (60)
Burt, Stephen. “New works by poets Jennifer Moxley, Judy Halebsky, Saeed Jones”. Los Angeles Times. 28 November 2014. <http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-poetry-roundup-20141130-story.html>. Web.
Moxley, Jennifer. Lyric Poetry and the Inassimilable Life. Essay on Robert Creeley and the Lyric. The Poker 6 (2005). Print.
Moxley, Jennifer. The Middle Room. A Subpress Book. 2007. Print.
Moxley, Jennifer. The Open Secret. Flood Editions. 2014. Print.
Moxley, Jennifer. “Orpheus and Opera, a Love Story”. 20 June 2016. <http://jennifermoxley.com/?p=652>. Web.
No Author Cited. “Review of The Open Secret”. The Publishers Weekly. 3 November 2014. <http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-9838893-9-7>. Web.