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Sunday, September 23, 2007

On The Middle Room by Jennifer Moxley

I told Bill Luoma in an email that, having never been to Southern California, I kept picturing everybody in this book on the sets of Three's Company. He said that was close enough. "Everybody in this book" comprises Jennifer Moxley (of course), Steve Evans (of course), Bill Luoma (as mentioned), Helena Bennett, Douglas Rothschild, Stephen Rodefer, Rae Armantrout, Fanny Howe, and others you may or may not have heard of or met in person or read. Some are students and some are teachers at UCSD, and there are plenty of parties and readings and classes and romantic intrigues. There are scenes of stapling-and-folding tiny magazines and letterpressing chapbooks (of each others' work, naturally, as it is most fun) and rolling broadsides into cardboard tubes.

The prose style of this memoir is somewhat circuitous and purposefully mannered, which is to say rather old-fashioned, and that took some getting used to. Well it was shock at first, really; I shook my head. (This is funny coming from somebody who's spent the last year and half with her nose in 19th century etiquette manuals, I do realize.) It's literariness, however, serves the author's self-observed "nostalgic passions" and is worn by the story the very way she (the author) wears her favorite vintage dresses and seamed stockings and antique gloves and hats, even in the mid 1980s even in a mild California winter.

Some things about the book (the au pair year, the trips abroad with family) were foreign to me, meaning that I could not, as I am always tempted to do when reading biographies and memoirs especially of writers, relate them to my own experiences in order to suss out the commonalities. (Looking for clues. Am I doing this right?) However, so many other things were so familiar I couldn't really believe the coincidences. (To tell you which would be entirely too revealing, because after all I am not Jennifer Moxley and I have not written a memoir.) She admits many things that I could would rather not, because I too was once a 20-something and prone to ridiculousness in the name of ART or LOVE. But one of the best and most honest things about the book is how she looks back at herself with both tenderness and embarassment for her various pretentions and goofs. She did OK and she knows it, though she may be amazed, considering.

Because when you are 20 you may well behave in frivilous, or confused, or funny, or embarrassing, or terrifying, or horrible, or dangerous ways, then later you are 30 if you are very lucky. Even later you are 40 and I guess then you can laugh. So if you are 20 or 30 and particularly if you are trying to be a poet, you will be drawn into this book. If you are a woman at the same time, you will be drawn into this book. You will be drawn in if you are interested to know what it is like to be a woman in her 20s trying to convince herself first and others too that it is OK for her to write poems and take them seriously. You will find out, if you do not already know, what it is like to withhold crucial parts of yourself from various people you would like nothing better than to give everything to, because vulnerability is a tough fucking routine and self-deprivation really does seem less likely to kill you. You will see that sometimes when a woman seems cold she is really raging with heat. Or when she seems ridiculous she is really excruciatingly thoughtful.

Further readingwise, Bill wrote a note re: the same time and has posted Helena Bennett's chapbook also here. That chap is very good, though too short, and it is exactly what I hoped I would find when I went a'googling. Also, I am jealous of its title. Jennifer Moxley's books are easy to find too. You can go here for those.

There is a review of The Middle Room here, which is perhaps more like a review and less like an entry from my diary, should that kind of thing appeal to you. I wouldn't know.

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