You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2011)
The Wage Poetics of Anna Moschovakis
In the fall of 2006, I happened to be visiting New York when Anna Moschovakis gave a reading at the Poetry Project for her first book I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone (Turtle Point Press, 2006). Hearing her read was a wonderful experience, as she and her poems that night were luminous enough to make me emerge from St. Mark’s Church feeling inspired. When I read her book soon afterwards, on the Amtrak back to Durham, the interplay of voices and texts in her work thrilled me as much as they did during her reading:
Because the man felt narrative that day
and walked around town breaking language with itself
and because the woman felt
manly that day and walked around breaking herself
(“First Preparation,” I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone)
Five years later, ages in terms of how the world and myself have changed, I am once again moved by Moschovakis’s poetry, in her new book You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake (Coffee House Press). The changes have been dramatic and in some ways unforeseen. While poetry remains as marginal as ever, the world itself is an accelerated and frivolous map of a decadent empire that might just as well be explained by poetry as by theory. Moschovakis is engaged in an ambitious project with her second book: to theorize our present to herself and to her readers through poetry. Moschovakis knows this is an impossible task, so her theorization is at once rebellion and contemplation, a book of poetry disguised as a discourse on self in relation to a broken world. In the acknowledgements, Moschovakis briefly discusses her method of composition:
Three of the four main poems in this collection were inspired by books chosen by title and appearance from the shelves of the Bibliobarn, a miraculous used bookstore in South Kortright, NY. The fourth was a gift from Matvei Yankelevich. (120)
She goes on to list their titles and to cite a few other authors and texts she borrowed from the Internet and from the archive of daily life. In all four of the long poems or sections, Moschovakis incorporates autobiographical elements in the form of reminiscences, along with lyrical and philosophical interludes. You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake might be considered a journal or notebook of sorts, albeit one whose entries have been carefully fitted together so as to create resonances beyond the private, the explicitly political or the lyrical.
The book is framed by a brief verse Prologue and a longer Epilogue of short prose blocks. The reader is thus carefully initiated and filtered through the work of the poem, which occurs in the future, when the book has been put down and its narratives begin to settle in the mind. I mention a political sensibility in this book because it is an essential component, one that Moschovakis handles beautifully:
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 (9)
Although much of the material in this book is taken from other sources, one continually gets a sense of Moschovakis’s voice permeating each page, calm and purposeful. Theoretical and seemingly detached, Moschovakis achieves a balance between observation and a performative voice charged with emotion:
The challenge: to start
not with theory but with tangible performance (30)
Starting with experience, magic
genuine science (30)
It can be difficult to find single excerpts to highlight in this book, as all the components in the four sections blend into each other, extending into a book-length poem that borrows from daily existence. The poet is occasionally glimpsed at work, attuned to the project of writing the now, sometimes wary, as though she were being written by the project itself: “One goes blindly back to one’s desk” (30).
Moschovakis’s note on composition (“inspired by books chosen by title and appearance”) confirms what Jen Hofer writes in her “Brief Essay” blurb for the book: “This book is not going to tell us what we need, nor what to do with what we have. It is going to suggest there are alternative procedures to material conquest...” The materials Moschovakis appropriates could have been entirely different from the ones she chose and this book would have likely produced a similar effect on me as a reader. What counts for the poet engaged with her text in relation to the present are the avenues of insight offered by the act of reading. The image of the desk as an emblem of duty is framed by the light (and lightness) of the daytime sky, just beyond:
Behind the desk there is a window
A woodpecker is attacking the house
The sun is attacking the snow on the pavement
Everything helping itself
to everything else (27)
There is both solace and anxiety in that light flooding the poet’s desk. Interestingly, the book’s autobiographical moments are among the most detached and objective. It is as though the self were being filtered through a search engine and its past clicked on alongside a multitude of others with similar names or coordinates. In the final section of the book, “In Search of Wealth,” Moschovakis incorporates a series of glimpses into a self that is at once an other, beginning with the first line: “When you were twenty-seven you opened a big white envelope.” (93) This other we inhabit is evoked in a series of jobs and wages over time, ranging from “Chilly Jilly’s, 1987, $3.35/hr.” (105) to “Pratt Institue: $1,000-1,500 per course unit per semester, plus stipend for administrative work. Office with a view, borrowed.” (106)
The effect on the reader of this list of employment over three decades depends on one’s relationship to capital and to survival. I suspect the majority of us reading this book will recognize the contingency of such endeavors, the inescapable numbers that reflect the struggle to survive. At the end of this section, the poet reminds herself (and us) of her physical trajectory across the globe, an inventory of places where the self has worked and lived:
That was in Los Angeles.
That was in Paris.
That was in London.
That was in New York.
That was in Addis.
That was in Baltimore. (114)
As a reader, I am happy to be included somehow in this list of places, having been in the audience that October night when Moschovakis read her poems at the Poetry Project. I find my notebook from late 2006 and now transcribe what I wrote about that evening: “So, Anna read beautiful work from her new book which I bought afterwards, just released. She seemed very relaxed, with a glow about her. She was a bit nervous but read marvelously. Toward the end of her reading I was dozing off, exhausted from my day, but she wasn’t boring. I was almost falling into dream with her words & voice as blessed vision and awoke refreshed to the applause as she finished.”
My own limitations as listener and reader are evident in these notes. But I hope I have conveyed some of the pleasure to be found in Moschovakis’s poetry, the way she theorizes and reflects on the seemingly immeasurable movements of our broken era. In her books, poetry is enacted as a living, compassionate and dynamic process. Through her unpaid work as a poet, Anna Moschovakis momentarily sets things right (an illusion, but a necessary one) and offers us a luminous comradeship.
Guillermo Parra was born in Cambridge, MA and lives in Durham, NC. He is the author of Caracas Notebook (Cy Gist Press, 2006) and Phantasmal Repeats (Petrichord Books, 2009). He is currently translating the poetry of José Antonio Ramos Sucre (Venezuela, 1890-1930). Some of these translations can be read at his blog, Venepoetics.