Jennifer Moxley’s THE OPEN SECRET

Davy Knittle

If Jennifer Moxley is the speaker of the poems in her new collection The Open Secret (Flood Editions, 2014), she is a number of people. If she is “the poet” and also the “I” of the poems, and I, as the reader, am the “you,” because the “I” is also sometimes the “you,” we might be each other. Personhood is fluid, as she writes in “Evacuations”: 

                                             …The poet starts
counting in order to show the “active” reader
that counting is intentional and structure meaningful,
and both are true. 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.  

In The Open Secret, Moxley is thinking about how poems move, and what their movement achieves is inextricable from her thinking about how people move and what they want from how they move through their lives. “The poet starts counting,” but it’s the speaker of the poem who does the repeating. The idea of repetition is itself repeated until the speaker (who, let’s say, is also the poet) moves from talking about the poem to talking about “my life,” which is made up of many pasts, both long ago and ten minutes ago, that inform its present.

Still, the “you” who needs a new recipe might be Moxley: “Thoughts of how much money you could save / by not buying a new coat” are her thoughts. The “you,” however might also be the “you” who is reading the text, who is I, and I might also be the active reader, which the friendliness of the text startles me into thinking of myself by means of the familiarity of Moxley’s tone. It’s startling especially because the largely straightforward syntax, declarative sentences, and lyric gestures that make up the book are a departure and even a rejection of Moxley’s earlier procedures. Her previous books, most recently Clampdown in 2009, participate to different degrees in an avant garde tradition that she moves away from here and yet puts pressure on, as in “Evacuations,” which gives itself the assignment of being in the present and not referencing any other text like “poets who practice / ‘new sentences.’” On the subject of the new sentence, Moxley notes, “There was a time when everyone / wrote them. I refused, not because I didn’t like / new sentences, I did, but because both the present / and the sentence bored me. Now is my time."

The poems make room for thinking, for dreams, and for silence as they manage and contextualize space both public and private, which is tricky in The Open Secret because many interpersonal interactions, many selves, and many portrayals of the public sphere, exist in Moxley’s head. The poems expertly document the tension between the desire to participate in the public sphere and the simultaneous desire to step away from the onslaught of public life, both social and political, often to be able to think about the contexts from which the speaker claims space. 

The first poem in the collection, “There Is a Birdsong at the Root of Poetry,” opens,

Hemmed in by an un-
tenable image:
              feathers planted
below fragile branches
              of avian feet

These lines enact an inversion like a bat sleeping, rotating the expected orientation of what’s visible, where a bird is buried headfirst and yet still emitting song, as the title suggests. The poem concludes,

and hear
                what those who know all
can not.

The final lines of the poem announce The Open Secret as a study of ways of knowing that considers what kinds of knowledge are desirable and how they might be accessed and used. The imperative “listen” directs the line at the “you” who is the reader—and who may also be Moxley—the book itself a directive to meet with silence what’s unattainable for “those who know all” in order to receive what it has to offer. As the book follows its invocation, it announces itself as available in the silence it occasions.

The poems in The Open Secret directly address Moxley’s thinking, listening, and writing as they occur over time, as the poet attends to her perception and how it shifts from moment to moment; her thinking is the action that often moves the poems forward: “Whenever I fear myself a bore / I think of listening” opens “Listen,” in which writing poems is a form of listening for the “birdsong at the root of poetry." The process of writing poems occasions the appearance of many people in Moxley’s thoughts, building a relational framework of loved ones, friends, and cultural icons (mostly artists). Those people include Berlioz, Henry Fonda, “Steve,” Picasso, “Rae,” Woody Allen, “brothers,” Eva Hesse, and Rothko, and speak to Moxley’s negotiation of the public and the private, where the people she includes often elide those spaces.

The Open Secret announces itself as a product of its moment by taking up a material context of “Chipotle” and “Starbucks” that operates as shorthand for the contemporary—but it also argues for a personal mode of measuring time outside of the public sphere. It is a chronicle of Moxley’s thoughts delineated by her personal experience of the contemporary moment, but it also records a larger, national moment. The book includes a poem about remembering 9/11 that notes itself as such, referencing the 2009 University of California system’s student and faculty protests against tuition increases, and the arrival of the recession in late 2007 and 2008.

The present dogs Moxley as much as it motivates her. She works to maintain the present, but she’s also trapped in it. She writes in “A Foolish Consistency,” “I can’t look back / or forward," and yet in “Evacuations” she repeats and revises the lines: “The present is resistance, punctured every third day / by a minor enthusiasm."

Although Moxley writes, “I have decided to give up on memory," much of the book is concerned with what can be remembered and with maintaining a record of the past. For instance, large portions of “Costal,” a poem concerned, in part, with how 9/11 has been remembered over time, happen in the past tense: “The world seemed mute, a backdrop / too perfect. Chickadee chirps echoed against it / but seemed as fake as a nature tape loop. We could not / hear them, blocked by the loud buzz of what ifs." In her negotiation of the remembered and the contemporary, Moxley puts the desire to remember in conversation with the desire to be absolved of memory.

The final lines of the book's last poem, “Foyer States,” echo the opening lyric: “The delicate strain of the minor effort echoing / Off ancient bedrock, a song not of ought to but of yes.” The book maps, among other things, the strains of minor efforts, and of resistance on various scales, and both opens and closes with the union of rootedness and song. There’s too much to know here, in these poems and in the act of living, and there’s a limit to what we can return to and experience again, and so we have to figure out what to do with it all, and to resist that figuring out long enough to do it well. 

The book seems to ask: Can we take the detritus of living and make song of it? What would that song be like? Would it be song? How do we begin to make it? What would stand in its way? At the same time, the book is song made of the detritus of living, even as it questions whether or not it’s possible to do this. The “open secret” of the book is perhaps the rootedness of song and the “yes” into which the book lands, where the affirmation of rooted song might be the silence that is made by listening. The Open Secret is an invocation to listen, and then to meet with silence every rooted thing that might make sound.

Davy Knittle's poems and reviews have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Jacket2, Fence, and Denver Quarterly. He is the author of the chapbook cyclorama (The Operating System, 2015), and his collaborations with Sophia Dahlin are forthcoming in Eleven Eleven. He lives in Philadelphia. 

Jennifer Moxley
The Open Secret
Flood Editions, 2014
$15.95 paperback; ISBN: 9780983889397
96 pgs.