Madonna Anno Domini

Reviewed: Madonna anno domini by Joshua Clover. Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

It is often important to understand why an audience acquires certain books, especially when this unmasks a shallowness on our part, or a susceptibility to the slick iconography of marketing departments. For it is certainly true in our time that the visual presentation of a book has an enormous influence on its initial popularity. Mr. Clover’s first collection of poems, winner of the 1996 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, attracted my attention for two reasons: the front cover reproduction of Guy Debord’s The Naked City and the back cover blurbs, which hailed him as, among other things, “a physicist of syllables, a mesmerizing singer of near-apocalyptic lullabies, a rememberer, a forgetter, a reinventer…” As I scanned the table of contents, I was intrigued by Mr. Clover’s unusual titles and by a quotation from Walter Benjamin, used as the book’s epigraph.

A month later, my excitement over the back cover blurbs, the Debord lithograph, the Benjamin epigraph, and table of contents—in short, over the visual presentation of the book—has hardly diminished, modified only by my disappointment in the poems.

I would venture to pronounce that these poems are disappointments, and that they largely do not succeed, but then they could hardly succeed, being so bereft of the apparatus of poetry. Mr. Clover, whether by preference or ignorance (and I think it the former), has often chosen to forego meter, regular rhyme, rhythm, and even stanzaic structure in his efforts. In short, craftsmanship has been avoided at all costs.

As a fashionable strategy, flouting the technical aspects of poetry still has its admirers, but such gambits, in an era populated by careless practitioners of the art, now seem more a mark of laziness than audacity.

As an example of this laissez-faire attitude, consider the beginning of Jack’s Boat:

April is the seduction of the world, and yet 

Language is the whirlpool. Which tears up the tree and throws it 

Aside? The king’s daughter now 

Plays, but seriousness…In the occupation of the imagination 

The lachrymose sky gushed indirectly no more:

A twelve syllable line followed by a fourteen syllable line, then seven, then nineteen? Nothing scans, of course. Notice the line breaks, especially the second and third, which violate the eye and ear unreasonably. As for the denotative character of this poem, well, let’s just say that it revels in opacities of non-meaning more Maenad-like than Apollyonian.

What exactly is being described here? Either April or language tears up a tree, just before the entrance of a frivolous princess demands a call against levity, and the sky either gushes directly or stops gushing indirectly…ad absurdum. The critic may be accused of being maddeningly literal, of being insensitive to a Wallace Stevens-like approach to subject matter, an approach combining word-play with philosophical (not to mention lexical) abstraction…to which the critic would reply that Stevens’ limitations were mitigated (if, indeed, they were mitigated) by his interest in words as music, and that he rarely ventured to concoct such inanities of phraseology as “The king’s daughter now/Plays, but seriousness…”

Madonna anno domini, unfortunately, is full of such near-concrete language poetry. Mr. Clover often chooses the prosaic, the deliberately flat phrase in these poems, wedded to a kind of stream-of-consciousness narration. Very often this achieves for him a vertiginous cascade of words which, incidentally, does not have a wholly unpleasant effect. One only asks that it not become the modus operandi of an entire collection, as here. Consider, for instance, the opening lines of Bathtub Panopticon:

I had a little desert, I kept it in the study, 

it was a few inches across, like a hand mirror, 

it moved a few inches at a time, like an ice age, 

I listened to Cortez, the atonal opera mecanique

you could spend a siecle waiting for it to begin, 

cancel every date, another siecle before the fin,

The voice here is sure, the lines cohere, and say something. Unfortunately, eighteen lines follow that do not. One is always encountering, in this collection, promising fragments embedded in larger ruins, stray lines still radiant amid odd surroundings, like pearls in heaps of sawdust. Meanwhile, the whole poem never quite seems whole, with each successive line always threatening to fall apart, or dissemble, or chase its tail.
Most of these poems have such a tenuous relationship to meaning, with their compound narratives full of American slang, French phrases, esoteric leftist ideologies, and electronic equipment…are so full of references to Lenin, Las Vegas, Le Corbusier, and cash… that one imagines a professor in the Social Sciences department at Berkeley decided, as a lark, to publish his vers libre attempts at automatic writing.

Here, one is obliged to make a distinction: meaning is tenuous, but ideas proliferate. Half of the ideas are half-baked; others linger between the lines the way perfume lingers in an empty room, or suddenly turn out the lights and copulate madly with unrelated material. Ideas proliferate but one is not quite sure what they mean. In the end, the idiosyncrasy of the collection is such that one is rather tempted to meet the author, for what character could have produced these strange and failed poems, these curiosities more interesting than many another man’s successes?

For there is a quality to Madonna anno domini, and not an inconsiderable one. Principally, Mr. Clover has shown himself to be in possession of a very interesting and personal lexicon. If pleasure can be found in these poems then it is in words, singly found and appraised. Words like panopticon, calcula, telemetric, mnemon, Marat, and auto-da-fe constitute a treasure in themselves, a modern exotica. Such a word-hoard may prove useful to a generation of poets attempting to describe new phenomena, or perhaps it will serve as a limit case, a kind of Decadence. Either way, disinfectant, chignons, postoperative, aqueous, spectral and ultra-indigo litter the collection and overcome all but a few poems, such as “The Nevada Glassworks” and “Dead Sea Scroll.” If only the elusive was not mistaken for the allusive so persistently, that matter was more often shaped into form, and that the difficulties of these poems were imposed by their content rather than contentedly imposed by their author….

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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