“Boiled Dinner” by Jennifer Moxley and the “Meta New York School Work”

Jennifer Moxley, photo credit © John Sarsgard 2010

Jennifer Moxley, photo credit © John Sarsgard 2010

A couple weeks ago, I discussed the new Ashbery feature in Jacket2 and mentioned that it features a piece called Boiled Dinner, a play by the poet Jennifer Moxley.

Moxley’s play is a good example of what I like to think of as a “meta New York School work”  — a thriving mini-genre all its own, in which writers self-consciously address the lore, the language, and the legacy of the New York School and its chief poets, and contemplate the New York School as a group or movement, as an institution, and as a monument of literary history.  (To mention just two of many examples, Peter Gizzi’s Ode: Salute to the New York School and Kent Johnson’s “Sestina: Avantforte,” which uses the names of six New York School poets — Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara, Schuyler, Guest, Ceravolo — as the sestina’s endwords, come to mind).

In Boiled Dinner, Moxley has written a very funny, irreverent play about John Ashbery, or perhaps it is more accurate to say it is about Ashbery’s fame — the enormous shadow cast by Ashbery’s work, and how it relates to Moxley’s own existence as a poet.  With its absurd situation, campy dialogue, and characters based on real-life members of the literary world, its slightly inside jokes, biting humor, and satire, it also feels very much in the spirit of earlier New York School plays like Try! Try! by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, A Tragedy, by O’Hara and Larry Rivers, and The Coronation Murder Mystery by Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and O’Hara.

The characters are not so much thinly veiled as they are playfully, ironically not-veiled-at-all, as can be seen in the main characters: a famous French poet named “Jean Hache-Béret” and an American poet “Miss Guinevere Moxley.”

The play parodies a whole array of things in a short space: the predatory role of the poetry critic, the trendy obfuscating jargon of lit crit and queer theory, Ashbery’s widespread influence and his legions of imitators.  But Moxley also directs the satire at herself and her own work — including some joking about her own debts to Ashbery and other poets of the New York School.

The play presents an Ashbery figure hounded by fame, pursued by academics and wannabe young poets who all struggle over the meaning of his work.  Poor “Hache-Béret” is just trying to enjoy some cocktails at a Montparnasse cafe, while elsewhere in Paris scholars have gathered to discuss his poetry.  And then there’s Moxley, a younger American poet, wrestling with how she is read (or not read), and how her work has been pigeonholed.

Two rival literary critics, the very powerful “Velma Handler” and “a slightly less powerful” critic named “Pearl Indeterminate” spend most of the play fighting for control of Hache-Béret’s work and reputation.

With these characters, Moxley of course stages — and sends up — the clichéd notion that there has been a longstanding “clash of the titans” struggle between Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff.  In the play, the two critics engage in a battle over the nature of poetry in general, and of Ashbery in particular.  Pearl grumbles “Oh, of course, Velma Handler had to be here.  She thinks she owns Hache-Béret’s work.”  Later Handler exclaims “I own the meaning of Hache-Béret,” and Pearl replies “He’s mine, he’s mine.  Stay away Velma Handler, Hache-Béret is my poet!”  By the end of the play, they are reduced to shouting at one another “I own the meaning of Hache-Béret” and “No, I own the meaning!” — as they do so ad infinitum, Ashbery escapes to the bathroom.

We also see a “humorless queer theorist” who shouts at Ashbery “You must write explicitly about your sexuality!” and says things like “his conformist closet works to globalize the heterosexist episteme.”  There’s a cafe waiter/aspiring poet who scrambles for blurbs and approbation, and a Ph.D. candidate who begs Ashbery to stop writing poems so he can finish his dissertation.  Meanwhile, the dialogue is spliced with funny and apt quotations from Ashbery’s poems, as when Hache-Béret, caught in the crossfire of warring critics and poets, mutters “These decibels are a kind of flagellation” (the first line of “The Skaters”).

There is a visit from the ghost of James Schuyler, and some banter between the Ashbery character and Schuyler, which gives Moxley the opportunity to poke fun at her own indebtedness to Schuyler: for example, Schuyler says to her that the name “Moxley” should mean “she who took all her best moves from Jimmy.”

Moxley muses over the fate of her own work and reputation — at one point, she’s called a “conformist” (in reference to her sexuality), at another she is told her poetry is not experimental enough (“you’re way too determinate.  Besides, you’re a girl”), and when she says “I’m a political poet” the stage directions pointedly say “They ignore her.”  

At one point, an exasperated Guinevere Moxley implores the queer theorist Ambrosine and the critic Pearl: “Why don’t you leave us poets alone.”  The play ends with Moxley grabbing Hache-Béret’s hand, as the two poets steal away from the scene, leaving the critics — those assassins of the poets’ orchards — squabbling away, while the real poetry goes on elsewhere.

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