You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis
(Coffee House Press, March 2011)
Anna Moschovakis’ second book, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake tackles a great tangle of cultural systems with the probing wit and intellectual sensitivity announced in her first book, I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone (Turtle Point Press, 2006). Bookended by two shorter poems, four long poems comprise the meat of You and Three Others, taking their titles (as she notes in the Acknowledgements) from books she stumbled upon by chance.
Moschovakis hammers her found materials, chosen for a “bold stand toward their topics and the twentieth-century world they inhabit,” into various poetic shapes: lists, epistles, journal entries, theatrical dialogue, and even social networking posts. Yet the lyric mode provides a bass line for the collection, giving a heartbeat to her poems’ modal riffing.
The opening poem titled simply “[prologue]” announces:
The problem is I don’t care whether I convince you or not
In a perfect world I would be able to convince you of this
Everybody should always have a position on everything
We take our positions with us, like folding stools to the beach
The stools, when we abandon them, fade to the same color
Characteristic of Moschovakis’ earlier work, “[prologue]” launches a grammatical argument, shuttling through verb tenses as a means of exploring different angles of her concern about the speaker’s “position” (a sticky allusive term calling to mind a slew of possible applications) to her reader, and vice-versa. Moving by line from the indicative to the conditional to the more personal and unstable modal tense of “should” then back again, verb tense takes on a concrete symbolic function, much as our “positions” become “folding stools” we take with us, then “abandon.”
The book’s first long poem, “A Tragedy of Waste,” takes this movement between “positions,” or formal code-switching, a step further by weaving text from a Labor Bureau publication into lyric. “At the beginning of 1917 there were housewives / children, old people, sick people / fields, factories, stores, offices” sets an academic, factoid-y tone, which the lyric speaker’s (or positioner’s) voice interrupts with pronouncements such as: “This taxes the imagination. Too many studies have begun / and ended in the middle.” Breaking prose “facts” into lines of “poetry” highlights intrinsic tensions between what is said and what is buried in what is said, but it is the lyric moment that raises the emotional ante, turning text into poetry:
First the necklace of bone
then the shift of leather
tea, tobacco, and gambling
in other words
ten men could live on the corn
where only one can live on the beef [.]
In seven terse lines, the “study” above reaches a political and economic conclusion we can presume previously taxed the speaker’s imagination. If “[f]rom these definitions, one must pick / and choose,” lyric meditation (among poetry’s other tools) offers us a better path to the heart (both literally and figuratively) of our world’s contradictory “positions.”
Moschovakis’ concerns are not purely extra-literary, however. In “Death as a Way of Life,” a modal fist-fight pitches purplish prose against philosophical observation with interesting results:
Man dies, that is nothing
when a woman sits on the edge of her bed, in front of a window, and lets down her red silken hair, threading it through her delicate fingers as it cascades in waves down her porcelain back, which reflects the moon’s silvery mood, so that any man privileged enough to catch a glimpse of her falls directly to his knees, blind, lost, panting for breath [ . . . ] still he has no regrets, and he welcomes death, invites it, knowing as he’s never known anything before that his life wants for nothing [ . . .]
Shifts in line, syntax and diction pull us from a creepy, faux-logical world where “[w]ith seven bullets, you could shoot a woman / in both breasts, both ovaries, her vagina and clitoris / with one bullet left for a target of choice” to a veritable cauldron of overwrought Romance. There is a Joycean sensitivity to rhetoric at work in these poems, as well as great humor. Though the idea of using bullets to target a woman’s sexual organs is not funny, the drastic code-switching that occurs in the two pages between it and the longer excerpt above collapses rhetorical forms so quickly that a reader might guffaw as much out of surprise as out of amusement at Moschovakis’ deftness of hand. Indeed, her control of and sensitivity to language’s ends and means saves her poems from falling into the trap of elliptical faux-irony plaguing many of her contemporaries.
What is at stake in You and Three Others is perhaps the messiest of modes, the human sensibility—that which does not dare lay claim to a systematic organizing principle, and which certainly feels itself weakest in the race for Progress. Both in the multiple sense of the global community as well as in the prime sense of the individual, You and Three Others bears witness to the web of forces burying the human cost of some of our “greatest” achievements—the establishment of the United States on the backs of its native peoples and ecology, the rise of capitalism at a similar expense, and, of course, the Internet’s uncertain terrain. As Annabot (the “chatbot” in “The Human Machine”) says to the machine when it declares “The Brain, the brain—that is the seat of trouble”: “My brain, whose brain? Those who feel, feel.”
HUMAN MACHINE: I ought to reflect, again and again, and yet again, that all others deserve from me as much sympathy as I give to myself. I place my hand over my heart.
ANNABOT: I cannot feel your hand.
HUMAN MACHINE: I cannot feel your heart.
If the book has any weaknesses, they are perhaps most evident in “The Human Machine,” where some of the lyrics risk self-referential obliquity. However, even the few off-key moments remind the reader that a particularly human consciousness accompanies us for the duration of the book’s journey—”Anna is a Capricorn. Her eyes are blue. Her favorite color is blue[.]“—whether in the form of the “you” co-opted in “A Tragedy of Waste,” or the cyborg Annabot and her foil Anna of the Five Towns (both a gloss of the author’s first name). That reminder comforts the reader even as it challenges her to consider her own position within the systems confronted by Mochovakis’ verse.
You and Three Others never loses focus of its concern with selves, and demonstrates a rare ability to speak convincingly about said selves through a complex web of modes that maintains a lyric voice while simultaneously critiquing the means that voice chooses. That Moschovakis is able to keep the emotional energy alive even as her poems remain unapologetically entranced with the ostensible anti-poetry of the systems she investigates is a contradiction that is as impressive as it is satisfying.
Mandy Malloy is a writer and graphic designer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program and a 2011 Norman Mailer Colony Fellow, her poems have appeared most recently in The Portland Review and Blood Orange Review.