'Through the Fragile Portal'

 A Review of Jennifer Moxley's The Sense Record and Other Poems

For mental creation too arises from the physical, is of one nature with it
and only like a softer, more enraptured, more eternal repetition of bodily
     ­ Rainer Maria Rilke

In her sixth collection of poems, The Sense Record, Jennifer Moxley gives a densely lyrical account of the poet's experience – an experience often marred by disappointment. Blending the sexual with the literate, the personal with the abstract, and emphasizing a uniquely female perspective, Moxley creates a group of poems whose power and complexity are as undeniable as they are intoxicating.

The book's opening poem, 'Grain of the Cutaway Insight', makes reference to the poet narrator's awakening to her craft. That craft, as Moxley sees it, is a condensed, reflective part of 'the sudden of taking [and] the larger of giving
', that make up life. The narrator's realization, however, is a melancholy one, and looking back on lost innocence, Moxley ends her account of the poet's beginning on a note of thoughtful resignation. She acknowledges that poetry, while not remedy enough to stop life's pain, is one of the only remedies a poet has:

   The poem therefore must be
                   a fit
   condolence, a momentary
   and ordered form of emphatic
                           question, around which continues to gather,
   despite habitual despair,
                the moving
   and needful Company of
                            thought, attentive
   to existence, quiet and ever

Through her poetry, Moxley offers the solace of shared experience, the shared need for consolation in the face of uncertainty. Though aware poetry cannot defeat sorrow, the narrator recognizes writing as her strongest weapon, and she uses that weapon as though compelled.
Moxley's verse is at is most effective when focused on the subjects of memory and childhood. In her descriptions of a lonely girl growing up, the sensual world of the body melds with the physical world outside.  Thus, the narrator in 'Where Was I Going' becomes inseparable from her environment:

On a ravine of bright grass, velvet even
dense in a breath shaken body, warmth
and comfort I ran towards it, it was a blanket
of wind

The highly lyrical style is appropriate here, employed in the description of youth seen through its nostalgic halo. The ghostly figure of the narrator's 'mother in heather', recurs throughout the collection, and helps establish a convention of shifting from abstract to personal detail.  This is one of Moxley's strong-suits – balancing high romanticism with a conversational idiom, and the metaphysical with concrete minutia. Thus the poet follows the highly stylized

   If in my leafy retreat
   I remain, white-faced
   and ever work-a-day,

with the more colloquial

   mouthing retarded lies

This balance between nearly period-style language, and the simpler tongue of

   childhood, creates a compelling shift that seems almost bizarre, until one
realizes the poet has effectively recreated the dizzying world of being a girl and a young  writer, absorbed into the world of verse.

One of the highlights of this collection is a long poem entitled 'Impervious to Starlight'. Again, Moxley opens with a reference to nostalgia for the innocence of lost youth. Her description of the apathetic and resigned existence that awaits one in adulthood is harrowing:

   The turn from the heart of easy youth
   to a soul-hungry adequate frame
   rocked in vacant luxury
   to the half sleep of slight regrets

Remarkably, Moxley is able to breathe new life into traditional lyrics. The phrases 'easy youth' and 'soul-hungry' attest to the fact that the language in Moxley's imagination is not limited to everyday speech; moreover, this poet is not afraid to draw on styles of the past to create lines intrinsically her own. 

Moxley determines that, if there is any pleasure left to us in life, it is the experience, or at least the remembrance, of the sensual. In 'Impervious to Starlight', she continues to weave together threads of lyricism and conversational lines, the effect being one of dazzling language. To pair the heavy abstraction of

   Every repressed failure corroded
   more of the sheen from off
   the simple miraculous starlight
   surrounding his scandalous anecdotes


   He poured his beer over ice

is a breathtaking linguistic move. The seemingly ordinary detail of the beer, which might seem dull on its own, sparkles when set against a passage of  delicate lyricism. Likewise, Moxley's lyrical turns become new and revitalized when infused with an injection of contemporary vernacular. In this way, the poet follows in the tradition of John Ashbery and other New York School poets, collaging whichever types of language best suit a particular piece.  It is this balance between the lyric and the conversational that distinguishes Moxley at her best, and she pushes the lyric form to its limits when using romantic language to talk about sex in a graphic way. 

Most of the poems dealing with sex in this collection are imbued with a sense of loss, adhering to a female perspective of sex in a male-dominated culture. Moxley accepts the only solace from lifeÕs eating loneliness is sensory experience, and few experiences demand more from the senses than sex. Yet, in someway, this form of solace is denied to women, because of the way femininity is commonly perceived. Female sexuality is consistently portrayed by mass media as innately passive. Likewise, sex is cast as an act of invasiveness, one requiring women to forfeit their bodies' privacy. Thus, in 'Impervious to Starlight', the poet recognizes the entering of a vagina, as a sensory experience that, though seeming to offer comfort, is actually 'somehow . . .an illusion'. Moxley writes:

   I moved my hand inside her cunt
   and knew it was not my trapped fingers
   between the pillow of muscle
   and the frame of hard, abstract bone
   but the idea of her pleasure
   that aroused me. Just as your cock
   grows hard at the thought of what
   I might now be thinking.

Here, Moxley's critique of the replacement of women's sexual pleasure with passivity is both devastating and relevant. It is not her pleasure the narrator (presumably female) experiences, but the vicarious pleasure of the woman whose vagina is entered. And even this female pleasure is not the narrator's own to enjoy – rather, it passes to a male voyeur. This male gaze of judgment, so pervasive throughout human culture, and so instrumental in teaching women to evaluate themselves, not based on what their bodies can do or experience, but on whether they will appear acceptable to male spectators, can block even a poet from the solace of sex. Thus, pleasure and the chance for respite in sex, pass away from Moxley's  narrator, bestowing themselves instead on a hard cock. 

The poems in The Sense Record
become increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of sensual pleasure as comfort. Moxley simultaneously accepts that limited sensual comfort is all the poet can have. The sex act becomes more intrusive, as the sequence of poems progresses. The womanÕs role grows more passive, as though the narrator were trapped in a system designed to deny her bodily delight.  In 'Aide-Memoire', Moxley writes:

   Through the fragile portal you push, and,
   Heedless of acidic secretions, enter,
   the nest is moist and dark, inside its lattice . . . .

This passage is startlingly powerful, the beauty of the language mingling with the disturbing description of a woman succumbing to force. The male poet or artist may sink into the 'nest' of the vagina for warmth and comfort. But where should the female poet seek her peace? Her pleasure is overshadowed by the enjoyment of another, and thus, in a moment of pathos, the narrator of 'Little Brick Walk' speaks of a male acquaintance:

    'how I envied him . . . those many husbanded years
    . . . . 'I have no wife,' I spoke to the dust . . . .

In a long tradition of wives providing artistic husbands with labor and support, it still seems unlikely for a modern female poet like MoxleyÕs narrator to find the support of a 'wife' in a male partner.

In the end, the poet continues to hold to her girlhood dreams, though a life of experience has taught her those dreams will never be fully achieved. In the title poem, the narrator finally admits:

   I continue to dream of horses
   The tranquil leaps of a bookish soul
   above material impediment.
   To simply know and no more.
   To see my long abandoned hope
   refracted in your foliate eyes,
   translucent and, if I remember right,
   careening toward disappointment.

In whose eyes are the narrator's hopes refracted? The eyes of her younger self, whose fantasies will not come to fruition? The eyes of an indifferent, or even solicitous lover, who, despite his benign intentions, cannot appreciate the importance of the solace of activity, which he is granted freely, but which she must continue to anticipate?  Perhaps the eyes are the eyes of a world still saturated by the view that femininity is passive, dependant, and second-rate. For all these sets of eyes, no matter their status or sex, Jennifer Moxley's poems, though heartbreaking, are necessary. Their beauty, their lyricism, and their open devastation, cry out for a comfort women artists deserve and crave.

                © Stephanie Cleveland 2004