Commentaries - July 2012

Find the missing line (PoemTalk #55)

Jennifer Moxley, "The Atrophy of Private Life"

Jennifer Moxley


On the chance that PoemTalk’s listeners are ever tempted to stop listening after the main conversation and before we “gather Paradise” (make recommendations), we urge you to stay through to the end of this episode in particular — at which point you will hear Cathy Eisenhower’s short list of Washington, DC, venues for readings and gatherings. And we’ll add, here, belatedly, our intention to travel soon down to DC for an on-the-road PoemTalk.

Yes, so Cathy Eisenhower joined us from DC, and Christopher Schmidt from New York, and Katie Price from just down the campus Walk – to talk about one of the prose poems in Jennifer Moxley’s 2007 book The Line. Moxley had previously authored Imagination Verses (Salt, 2003), The Sense Record and other poems (Salt, 2003), and Often Capital (Flood Editions, 2005) among other works. We took up The Line because it would seem to enable us to talk about the situation or state of the poetic line — the poetic unit of language, the aesthetic or politico-aesthetic lineage – and we chose “The Atrophy of Private Life” within that book because the meta-poetic sense of “the line” would have to be at best implicit and we wanted to push ourselves to consider a possible critique of the sorry or depressed state of contemporary private life as itself a kind of line (as in ideological line) in such a way that the three senses of “line” — (1) poetic unit, (2) aesthetic lineage, where a poet fits or doesn’t fit, and (3) political stance — might converge unevenly and uneasily yet revealingly.

Private life is becoming emaciated and “the sets of relations are very limited” (notes Cathy), and so aptly we are in “a house strewn with fashion magazines.” The piece contends, seemingly straight out, that the destruction of the poetical has been mostly caused by the fabulously rich. The poet  unmasks American bounty as actual impoverishment. Is Moxley really suggesting these things directly? Cathy says yes – and also no. “There’s a lot of switching going on — with ‘meaning’ and ‘money.’” If those two terms were “flipped,” adds Cathy, “I’m not sure it would matter that much.” [Below, from left to right: Cathy Eisenhower, Christopher Schmidt, Katie Price in PoemTalk’s garret studio.]

Chris is interested in the mask in the poem. In Marx, the commodity masks real relationships. So that is the leftist line (another “line”) Moxley nods at, and possibly contends, but she’s also troubled with the notion and trend of masking in poetry: the languaged or non-transparent selfhood of the writer apparently never discernible.  Doubt that much-accepted concept, Moxley explores didacticism as an alternative to and resistance to a certain dominant “fashion” in the world of poetry itself, not merely, in other words, in the world of the fabulously rich. In this way, say Chris and Katie both, the mask represents the poetics of surface at which Moxley clearly excels (through her own excellent training as a writer) but which she also regrets. (Is that regret the source of the “depression” we all sensed — as did reviewers — in The Line?) Katie adds that Moxley is suspicious of the image and the language becoming “almost too pleasurable.” A line can be pleasurable and through the pleasure derived from it seem to say one thing, and then (here’s the resistance) it can be seen as saying the opposite.

Our recording of Moxley’s performance of the poem comes from a November 2004 reading (prior to the publication of The Line) held in Brooklyn for “Radio Poetique.” And here is the text:

The Atrophy of Private LIfe

In the heavy fashion magazines strewn here and there around the house the photos of objects and people mouth the word “money,” but you, assuming no one wants you anymore, mishear the message as “meaning.” Arousal follows. The lives of the rich are so fabulous! The destruction of the poetical lies heavily on their hands, as on their swollen notion that we are always watching. There is nothing behind the mask. Nothing suffocating under its pressure, no human essence trying to get out.
       Awareness, always awareness. Don’t you see how these elaborate masks are turning you into a zombie? The private life is not for the eye but for the endless interior. It is trying to push all this crap aside and find the missing line. Nobody, least of all the future, cares about the outcome of this quest.
       It is easy to lose, through meddling or neglect, an entire aspect of existence. And sometimes, to cultivate a single new thought, you need not only silence but an entirely new life.

PoemTalk #55 was engineered by Chris Martin and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (41): The Song of the Azria

Adapted by Pierre Joris from Y. Georges Kerhuel's French version

Editorial note: The following is part of Pierre Joris’s ongoing exploration of North African (Maghreb) culture, a work as big & multifaceted as his own sense of the dynamics & far reach of poetic imagination & fancy. Yet the stakes here, as with much real poetry, go well beyond poesis as such, to exemplify & expose an area of religion & sexuality that has been a given in many parts of the world, “from origins to present.” Here the azria (courtesan) asserts the role of the outsider, still not forgotten, to raise new/old powers of body & mind in the service of vision & desire. (J.R.)

I am beautiful Azria
I am unfaithful Azria
I am the tender fruit
of a tree with tight clusters
I smile at everyone
I hate marriage
& for no price
will I admit slavery
I wear no veil
I hate all cloth
my happiness is
beauty and youth
my black eyes’
mysterious gaze
has the power
to enthrall my lovers
my Queen Kahina face
is more than bait
my mouth is made of honey
perfectly real
he who tastes it once
will return for more
my chest & its high breasts
draws in the holiest looks
while below my belt
lies nature’s sacred temple
where the faithful come to sin
in love my heart
often lies for
I am Azria
remorseless Azria
I accept the weak and the strong
I am carefree Azria
and my life is my life
my pride comes from my freedom
my life is crazy gaiety
from the most noble to the ugliest
my lovers are innumerable
I am Azria the dancer
who makes women jealous
I am the singer
I am the crooner
my gorgeous voice
opens all doors


[Writes Joris selbst]: “This eponymous song, arranged by Y. Georges Kerhuel & included in the Encyclopédie de lamour en islam Tome 1 (edit. Malek Chabel), speaks to the specific situation of Shawia Berber society in the Aurès mountains (northeastern Algeria). Mathéa Gaudry, a lawyer at the Appellate Court in Algiers, wrote about the Shawia courtesans in a treatise on Aurès culture in the 1920s: ‘The power of the Shawia woman does not pale with time. Knowledge of occult sciences, the prerogative of the elder, only reinforces it. […] The azria is a courtesan who received who she wants and goes where she wants. She sings, dances, plays cards, smokes and goes to cafés. No triviality in her manners; to the contrary: a tranquil self-assurance and often a natural distinction are her mark. Her courtiers’ enthusiasm surrounds her. They all show her a quasi-religious submission. When she intervenes, a fight will stop immediately.’”

Adrian's footstool

Lounge chair by Gerald Summers

Does a chair sit or stand?

A body can sit in a chair. Bodies are different, though, and sitting can look like a lot of things: you can sit on the edge of the seat with your back straight, letting the chair support your body in just one place; or, alternately, you can slouch and sink into the chair; you can draw your legs up and let them dangle over the sides, or cross one over the other, or fold them together in a lotus. You can do other things that look sort of like sitting: you can kneel, squat, or curl up in a ball. You can also stand on the chair's seat to reach an item on a high shelf, or climb onto a higher platform.

The chair seems to have fewer options. But what is it doing? Its limbs (not its seat and back) rest on the ground, so it's standing. However, insofar as the posture of the seat and back reflect that of the body it supports, it's sitting. And then, with all of its limbs pressed to the ground, it seems to be doing something else. Maybe its expression is suppliant. Praying, maybe. Or crawling?

Chairs are quasi-human in that human workers make them, and in that they share some features in common with human form: they have legs and a seat, and may also have a back and arms. From this point of view, the number of limbs on a chair seems excessive. Four legs and two arms add up to an insect body; and, as with insects, the chair's skeleton tends to be exposed. If you include a human sitter as part of the package, then you might have additional sets of legs and arms, which, if you imagine the latter as jaws, could make a spider-like body. Three legs might be just enough to make a rooted tree, or a plant that propels itself by its roots, such as a Triffid.

(There are chairs in the world that have only one leg, which is a human possibility. Is there an example of a chair with two legs, standing or walking upright? How many legs do you count on Gerald Summers's lounge chair, made of a single ingeniously molded length of plywood, where the legs, arms, back, and seat are not distinct but a continuous surface? Maybe that's more of an amoeba body.)

I will return to the question of chairs in a later post. Today I want to focus on footstools, which are either a primitive kind of chair, or an adjunct to chairs. In a remarkable motif in Marlowe's verse plays, a footstool has two positions, standing and stooping. The following passage is from Doctor Faustus.

Pope Adrian: Cast down our footstool.

King Raymond: Saxon Bruno, stoop,

Whilst on thy back his holiness ascends

Saint Peter's chair and state pontifical.

Pope Bruno: Proud Lucifer, that state belongs to me!

But thus I fall to Peter, not to thee.

Pope Adrian: To me and Peter shalt thou groveling lie

And crouch before the papal dignity.

Sound trumpets then, for thus Saint Peter's heir

From Bruno's back ascends Saint Peter's chair.

(Doctor Faustus, B-Text, 3.1.88-97, ed. Bevington and Rasmussen [Oxford, 1995])

Pope Bruno, the footstool, has to be "cast down," because he wasn't originally in the down position. He has to "stoop" from an upright position, and -- because, left to his own devices, he wouldn't always be waiting by the throne to be used -- for that to happen, someone has to tell him to stoop. Pope Adrian can't tell him. An elaborate chain of command separates Adrian from direct communication with the furniture. The chain of command links elite political operators: Adrian, a spiritual power, gives the command to Raymond, King of Hungary, a temporal power, who passes it to Bruno, a rival spiritual power. Here the chain breaks down. The footstool resists. He thinks he is the Pope; he says so distinctly and eloquently.

From a design perspective, Bruno's service as footstool is impractical. His use could never be ordinary and is, on the contrary, ritualistic. Surely some clever engineer could imagine a smoother, more comfortable path to the throne. Bruno's ritual function is something more important than comfort, which is the opposite of comfort. Adrian sacrifices his own comfort to enhance Bruno's discomfort.

I deliberately use the word discomfort rather than dehumanization. The footstool in this scene has everything in common with human form, because Bruno's is a human body, living and whole. His other human attributes include a gender (masculine), a name (Bruno), and an ambition (to enjoy the state of the papacy) and its verbal expression ("That state belongs to me!").

(Some scholars think that he might be Giordano Bruno. I would like to think so too, because this identification would give him the additional human attribute of participation in intellectual history. Giordano Bruno, victim of the persecution of Clement VIII, and a sort of animist thinker, might have appreciated the image of a defiant stool talking back to the pope. However, since the character is called Saxon Bruno rather than Nolan Bruno, I doubt it.)

This list of attributes is overspecific if we are merely trying to establish Bruno's humanity, and that is the point: this footstool is overspecific.  When Adrian intones: "Cast down our footstool," he refers to one footstool only. No other article of furniture in the Vatican collection, no matter how practical or costly, will do.

Adrian and Raymond do not conspire to strip Bruno of his individuality or his human attributes. They refer to him as a footstool, but they also address him as Bruno, and allow him some freedom to express his views. They even listen and respond to what he says. (Adrian studiously refuses to give Bruno direct commands, but he does reply to him directly.) They never dispute Bruno's human dignity. They only disagree on the political question of whether he should also enjoy "papal dignity."

Thus the primary audience for their performance is Bruno, whom they treat as a negligible utility but never take for granted. They want to convince him that he is not the Pope. To a lesser degree, Adrian may be his own audience.  He may need to hear himself declare his ascension so that he can remember that he is actually the Pope -- because it's confusing when someone else makes the same claim. Bruno's short speech has the same logic: he wants Adrian to hear that he does not acquiesce, and he wants to hear it too, particularly in circumstances that are destructive to his self-image.

In a later post, I will take up the question of what Marlowe gets from the scene of Adrian's ascension "from Bruno's back," and what his audience may be expected to get from it. I'll conclude this post by noting a tertiary audience within the scene. This audience is an anomalous figure. It has no lines -- an extraordinary omission for a character in a play by Marlowe. Others talk to it and about it, but it does not talk, although it does have a human identity, a gender, and a name. I am referring to St. Peter's chair.

St. Peter's chair

In the setting designed by Bernini in the century following Marlowe's death, the chair has become almost inaccessible. To ascend to its seat, you would need something more than a footstool; you might have to stand on the shoulders of both John Chrysostom and Augustine, the church fathers who stand to the right of the chair, and who are made of the same materials.

Christopher Wood and Alexander Nagel have studied the logic by which St. Peter's basilica retains its identity during a period in which it is being destroyed and rebuilt (Anachronic Renaissance [MIT Press, 2010], 313-319). Their account ends before Bernini intervenes, but the "chain of substitutions" they uncover is useful for understanding the association of the chair with Peter. The gilded bronze chair that Bernini designed encloses a much older chair that Peter may or may not have actually sat in; or the older chair may include wood fragments from a chair that Peter once sat in. However old the older chair may be, it takes its chronology not from the epoch of its manufacture but from the ancient epoch to which it refers.

Further, by synecdoche, the chair refers to its traditional sitter in the ancient epoch, Peter, who is the antitype of the two rival popes. Bruno clarifies that he "falls" only "to Peter," and thus to himself, because Peter is his model; while Adrian further clarifies that Bruno, in falling to Peter, can't help falling "to Peter's heir" (meaning Adrian) as well.  The chair has no lines because it has nothing to add to this exchange. Links on the same chain of substitutions, each of the rival popes refers to the same type as the chair.

There is a fine symmetry in the composition of this scene. A man acting as a footstool declares his submission to a chair acting as a man.

Next: Tamburlaine's footstool.

Major authors

When I first began teaching in the MAT program at Bard in 2011, I was asked to propose a graduate course based on the standard areas of study within the literature track, which includes a “major authors” course. I had just completed a dissertation on gender and American poetry after 1945, in which all my major figures were marginalized women poets but in which I had frequently turned to Williams as the major figure of masculine modernism to whom many poets writing after 1945 turn — and away from whom they turn, also. I had become increasingly fascinated with literary inheritance and disavowal, and how theories of gender and identity might help us understand how poetic form behaves genealogically. I kept coming back to Williams as a beloved and contentious figure for American poets both major and marginalized.

In her 1980 lecture “Doctor Williams’ Heiresses,” for example, Alice Notley writes, “Gertrude Stein & William Carlos Williams got married: their 2 legitimate children, Frank O’Hara & Philip Whalen, often dressed & acted like their uncle Ezra Pound. However, earlier, before his marriage to Gertrude Stein, Williams had a child by the goddess Brooding. His affair with Brooding was long & passionate, & his child by her was oversized, Charles Olson.” Notley rewrites the genealogy of American poetry by playing with traditional laws of reproduction, feminizing male bodies and mating poets of different generations. And her piece centers around Williams, to whom she alternately rages and speaks indebtedly and lovingly.

So I chose to organize a major authors course around Williams, because he had already served as a figure who helped me coalesce variant concerns around modernism, gender, and poetic form. I chose him also because of his popularity in the secondary school classroom: I imagined many robust debunkings of the pat canonization of “The Red Wheelbarrow” with my student-teachers in training, who would now see that quintessential lyric within all the complexity and strangeness of Spring and All. And I chose Williams because he leads us to many other authors who populate my syllabus, from Poe to Spicer to Notley to Bernadette Mayer.

Now that I approach teaching this course for a second summer, I’m thinking even more this time around the politics of the major author study. A web search turns up this line from an English Major Worksheet at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa:

If a course is used to fulfill the Single Author requirement, it may not be used to fulfill an Historical Breadth requirement.

Does the Single (or Major) Author course sacrifice Historical Breadth? And yet isn’t it supposedly History that determines who are the Major Authors?