Clover's debut poetry collection wears blurbs on its jacket like a decorated mercenary returned from the jungle. John Ashbery loves its voice: "brilliant... caustic... breathtaking." Michael Palmer adores its bell-like clarity: "[It] tolls this century's hallucinatory episodes." Jorie Graham, who picked Madonna anno domini as last year's Walt Whitman Award winner for the Academy of American Poets, calls its writer "a physicist of syllables, a mesmerizing singer of near-apocalyptic lullabies." And why not? The company backing this hot book blazed author Joshua Clover's path and it makes sense that they'd pass the machete back to him.
Madonna's underthings are stitched from the poetic canon--Shakespeare, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens--but its showy garments are in tormented dishevelment. There's panic irritating nearly every line here, shattered syntax--an exhilaration that smells of fistfuls of uppers mixed with ambrosia. The speaker--a constant character throughout--floats above the American landscape with his cockeyed gaze trained on every fissure and paradox haunting the contemporary psyche, from nuclear testing in the desert Southwest to computer-simulated lovemaking in a dive motel. "We are having trouble having a here./There is a body lying in state,/the lying body many months late," Clover writes in one poem. And here keeps changing, picking up the tent under cover of night and secreting off to another locale--one forever before us, as yet uninvented, existing only in theory. When such a sensibility is applied to history, the equation is less description than prediction: What will what's happened mean for the future? Where will we go, now that here is gone?
The questions Clover raises--sometimes explicitly, but more often not--are, in effect, desolate inquiries. This poet is smart in not resolving them, instead letting the fury of his vision (a convincing one for a poet so young) suffice to disturb the imagination, like shrapnel fired into the brain.