The Inescapable Injustice of Imagination: On the Recent Work of Jennifer Moxley

By Stroffolino, Chris | Chicago Review, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Inescapable Injustice of Imagination: On the Recent Work of Jennifer Moxley


Stroffolino, Chris, Chicago Review


Imagination Verses is the first full-length book by a poet who first achieved at least some degree of national notoriety by her inclusion in the double "New Coast" issue of O-Blek magazine in 1993. Yet this long-awaited book of poetry that unironically "references" not only such "avant-garde" poets as Oppen and Palmer but also such "traditional" ones as Keats, Crane, and Wordsworth, makes Jennifer Moxley a difficult writer to place. In fact, part of the value of Imagination Verses is the way it rebukes the critic's desire to "place" both poet and poem in a culture that subordinates poetry to theoretical agendas.

This is not to say that Moxley does not herself use prose to "define" (and thereby limit) her poetic investigations. In the book's preface she contrasts the involuntary (and therefore inescapable) unjustness that she terms "imagination" with the voluntary unjustness she terms "verses" or poetry. Poetry is therefore a choice for Moxley in a way "imagination" is not. It would be reductive, however, to characterize Moxley's intensely personal/political verses as apologies for injustice. Perhaps the distinction she makes between "social" and "organic" states may be helpful here in accounting for the tension inherent in the question of justice. One could say that Moxley employs organic injustice as a tool by which to intervene in social injustice. Certainly questions of justice are at least as central to Imagination Verses as the word "imagination" is, and one may justly ask what, then, is the relevance of the book's title to the poems therein included. Can one judge Moxley's book by its title?

David Shapiro once wrote "a title is not a can opener," and since many of the poems in Imagination Verses take a critical, if not exactly hostile, attitude toward what has been traditionally called "imagination," I am at first tempted to see the title as ironic. Yet, I also detect a double entendre here - regardless of whether this is Ms. Moxley's intention. I want to say "imagination vs. what? Fact? Reality?" What, if anything, is imagination opposed to? Think of Wallace Stevens. Although Stevens is often appealed to, both by admirers and detractors, as one of the strongest twentieth-century American apologists for an idea of the imagination, he is more characteristically ambivalent toward it. His faith in imagination is conditional and contingent, as he says at one point in his correspondence:

If one no longer believes in God (as truth)...it becomes necessary to believe in something else. Logically, I ought to believe in the essential Imagination, but that has its difficulties. It is easier to believe in a thing created by the imagination. A good deal of my poetry...has concerned an identity for that thing.

This "thing" (supreme fiction), is not clearly defined; it may apply both to the poem and the figure of the poet. Moxley, too, seems more concerned with an identity for such a "thing" in this book than she is with any "essential imagination." This "thing" is as undefinable in Moxley as it is in Stevens, and the tension between it and the "imagination" may be a useful way of getting a handle on her poetry. But, on a tonal level, Moxley shares less with the "high modernism" of Stevens (or Pound, or Eliot) than she does with the seemingly more modest lyrical achievements of Hart Crane. (The book's epigraph - "What blame to us if the heart live on" - is a quote from Crane's "Chaplinesque," and addresses a thematic that is also central to the book - as its first poem, "Home World," suggests, in its desire to "say what the register calls forth, the range of the heart.") Since the more up-front, highly personal and emotional lyric mode is so central to this book, perhaps we get closer to its heart if we see one of its primary tensions as that of Imagination versus the Heart.

This can be made clearer by a closer look at one of the surprisingly few instances in this book in which the word "imagination" appears. …

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