Druthers by Jennifer Moxley
Flood Editions, 2018. 112 pages.
Reviewed by Brendan White
Jennifer Moxley seems happy in Druthers. There’s a poem about her husband’s sexy smile; plenty of poems about how cozy their home is; and one titled “Happiness,” about how she now enjoys spending her time reading and refreshing her Latin with Wheelock while drinking tea.
The final poem uses the book’s many blissed-out entries to sell a hard feint in the direction of I-deserve-this-ism. It begins with a self-satisfied catalogue: “I wrote this happiness myself. / I chose this man, this house, this cat.” Then her thoughts run upstairs to an attic full of old pictures and proof that she was once happy with an entirely different set of possessions and relationships. She worries she’s like Job at the end of the story, when his fortune has been restored and a new family has replaced the dead; she is horrified that, should she lose everything she currently loves, she will probably find a way to be OK. And if there’s a plausible future self that does not miss what she now has, can what she has be of any real value?
With this hanging over it, the rest of the book sounds more like the poet is trying to convince herself that she shouldn’t be depressed. The poem “Happiness” is paired with one addressed to “Sadness,” and ends: “You’re the great love of my adulthood, / But I would leave you if I could.” In this light, the poems are less about what makes her happy than what can be used to avoid despair. The answer, it turns out, is usually books or Eros, and at one point Moxley figures her husband as a ledge upon which she has a “selfish grip.”
Much of this is set in formal verse with eager recourse to archaic inversions and rhymes, so the tone is hard to mark. One is tempted to keep a running sincerity tally: plus ten for autobiographical subject matter, minus five for calling her spouse her “consort.” A poem about how her husband’s smile makes her weak-in-the-knees presents stock imagery of erotic transport with a nonzero amount of facetiousness and metastasizing sibilants:
in unisex robes who blow
I’m lost. One glint off
the white of your incisors
and I’m whisked inside
the celestial philharmonic...
A dedication at the front of the book thanks Robert Herrick and Lightnin’ Hopkins for saving her from “deep blues and dark woods.” Aside from whatever real-life function the two served in cheering Moxley up, their spirits seem present in the book’s deliberate mannerism and bent for eros and pleasure. Herrick is particularly apparent, from borrowed stanza forms and rhyme schemes to the “cavalier” attitude prevailing in an assortment of epigrams, songs, and metaphysical vamps. Moxley seems taken with the rhyming epigram in particular; Druthers dedicates whole poems to the kinds of fleeting thoughts or opinions that Moxley tucked into multipage meditative poems in her last two poetry collections, Clampdown (2009) and The Open Secret (2014). (Druthers has 24 one-page poems while Clampdown had seven and The Open Secret five.)
Druthers, a noun made from a contracted modal auxiliary verb mushed against an adverb, means a preference (“I’d rather”). Four rhyming epigrams with the title “Druthers” put forth two preferences each and luxuriate in “the thoughtful / violence of something plucked.” Another poem justifies her preference for Baudelaire and Herrick over Eliot and his “pathetic” Prufrock. There’s also a poem that dramatizes trying to figure out what the word “penetralium” means without looking it up and a long poem about best practices for cooking and leading a fulfilling cooking lifestyle, like Virgil’s Georgics but for dinner parties.
In The Open Secret Moxley wrapped this sort of comically banal longing in enlightened self-awareness: “Who cares that a middle-aged West Coast poet / living in New England is craving a patty melt.” Druthers has refined away her trepidation, and seems a truer fulfillment of Moxley’s self-diagnosed tendency from earlier in that same poem: “I cannot accompany you into the abstract / but grow more narrative by the year, / saying things to get them said, / feeling no leisure to take old risks.” It seems paradoxical that Moxley becomes more direct in diction dressed for the RenFaire. But Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Herrick were both artists who worked within well-regulated genres and did not hesitate to turn well-established tropes to their own uses, and another thing that Moxley takes from them is this license, this matter-of-fact embrace of their own materials. As she puts it in another context, with evident admiration: “The classics are bossy and know / their mind. ‘A dry hamburger / is not acceptable.’ (Marion Cunningham).”
Brendan White is a poet and local government employee who lives in Chicago.