Reviewed April 1, 2017 by MC Hyland.
“Whose I is this anyway?”: On three books by Anna Moschovakis
1: “How I describe the distinctions varies”
Early in the long poem “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde,” Anna Moschovakis introduces a mysterious medical condition experienced by its speaker. This condition will reappear, unnamed and unclarified, throughout the remainder of her most recent book, They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This —even as the speaker herself comes to understand (and, presumably, to identify) the condition. She writes:
when I went in for tests they said I was normal—and only after I did a lot of research on the Internet—did I come to understand that what they meant by that—was that my condition is unexplained
“What It Means to be Avant-Garde” takes this “condition” —its mysteriousness, its ability to pass below the threshold of medical language (as “normalcy”) —as one of its central concerns. The “condition” provides a metaphor for the incommunicable or extralinguistic: later in the same poem, Moschovakis writes “there’s something I haven’t told you that has to do with my condition,” but immediately changes the subject, puncturing the poem’s narration with a tiny aporia. However, at the same time, the “condition” is language: “What It Means To Be Avant-Garde” combines first-person narration (mostly about research or reading, travels, and relationships) with checklists for diagnosis and self-diagnosis: “I get tired for no good reason Good part of the time./ My mind is as clear as it used to be A little of the time./ I find it easy to do the things I used to Some of the time.” The poem works as a balance between understanding a “self” as particularized through a set of relationships (or interests, or references, or activities), on the one hand, and on the other, seeing a “self” as shaped by available descriptive frameworks. After all, in diagnosis, a condition can be understood only if its sufferer shares sufficient qualities with other sufferers, if she can be understood as a “type.” (At one point, Moschovakis writes about researching the “condition” online: “there are lots of people who have it and none of them can spell.”)
This dialectic—of the particular and the typical—is a central element of Moschovakis’s work. In three collections published over the last decade (2006’s I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone and 2011’s You and Three Others Are Approaching A Lake, as well as the newly released They and We), Moschovakis has carefully, intelligently, and playfully weighed the two categories against one another, informed by her broad, idiosyncratic reading. Her work is interested in problems of epistemology, and asks how one might rigorously consider both experiential data and intellectual tradition, often combining the two in poems full of lucid—and sometimes slightly laboratory-notebook-styled—observations. A distinctive trait within her work is an unstable relation between the two “opposed” pairs I have introduced so far: while “experiential data” may play the role of “the particular” and “intellectual tradition” the role of “the typical,” the two sets of terms may change places at any moment within a given poem. Take “The Blue Book,” in Moschovakis’s first collection, which begins with a “personal”—or, at least, a first-person—account of memory and perception:
There are more trees here than I know what to do with.
I don’t know any of their names with certainty.
My own name has stuck with me since I was very young.
I remember the day I learned to spell it with certainty.
There are ways to distinguish the trees from each other.
These distinctions seem fixed, like the difference between the sexes.
How I describe the distinctions varies, though.
It seems to become more detailed as I notice more details.
Here Moschovakis seems to be mining data about the description of the world from her own experience and memories. This data is, however, necessarily faulty and partial: her description not only sets up the self-consciously false binary of “the sexes” (more on that later), but also registers problems at the level of “certainty.” In fact, the poem demonstrates a fundamental shakiness as a quality of the word “certainty”: while easy to parse in the negative (“I don’t know any of their names with certainty”), “certainty,” in the positive construction, “I remember the day I learned to spell it with certainty,” becomes unmoored. Is Moschovakis’s speaker certain of her memory (of the day in childhood) or of her knowledge (of the correct spelling of her name)? Because certainty is a noun, not a verb, it lacks temporal markers that might help us to situate it definitively in either the past (the remembered day) or the present (the writer recalling that day). One might say that linguistically speaking, we cannot be entirely certain of which thing we are certain.
In this passage, Moschovakis frames a set of questions about identity and taxonomy with the problem of applying names to entities in the non-human world. Later in the same poem, however, these questions turn to identity and categorization among humans—to the question of how we may understand a person as a nameable and/or knowable entity. She writes:
Many people change their names.
Afterward, they are not seen as different by most people.
They may have private or public reasons for changing their names.
They may change names to buck or bolster tradition, for example.
(The change may or may not, in fact, buck or bolster tradition.)
Some people may change their sex.
They may have public or private reasons for doing so.
Afterward, they are seen as different by most people.
Some traditions only become buckable with progress.
Sex is a noun that can be both active and descriptive.
Here a string of generalizations slowly accumulates into a question about the nature of identity: what kinds of changes lead a person to be recognized as “different”? What kinds of changes leave a person “the same”? The poem sets difference-from-self in a continuum with difference-from-others: a page later, Moschovakis asserts that the experience of difference is central to “sex with another person,” regardless of the genders of those involved, adding that “Intimacy is only possible because people are seen as different.”
The central question of perception in this second passage resonates with the problem the would-be tree-identifier faces, though in the case of the person changing name or sex, the problem is diachronic (how to recognize an entity as self-similar through time and transitions) rather than synchronic (how to recognize “details” across a species). In this shift from the nonhuman to the human world, problems that begin as purely perceptual shade into the territory of the emotional, political, and ethical. A focus on perceptual clarity becomes an ethics of both skepticism and care—perhaps one might say a skepticism about received ideas of identity born out of a care for the specificities of individual experience. The poem seems interested in drawing attention to the arbitrariness of the relative emotional responses to changes in name and in gender, and perhaps to pose the larger question: why do we believe that any person remains a reliable entity over time? If the speaker’s perception fluctuates so that she cannot reliably “notice” the same “details” when looking at a given tree, how can we know that she remains the same person?
2: “I can’t know what you know”
The long poem or sequence is Moschovakis’s chosen form, largely because, as in “The Blue Book,” her writing proceeds by setting up parameters—often formal as well as of vocabulary, subject, or source material—and then assailing these parameters meticulously from several directions. While the procedures and set-dressings of “study” or “research” (books, computer-assisted searches, etymology, translation) are frequently present, they are often surprisingly torqued. In the untitled first poem of her first book, Moschovakis writes, “I seem to act along some kind of line/ albeit a kinky one”—it is this kink in her approach that makes her poetry so worth both reading and returning to.
Her engagement with the long poem, though present from her earliest work, comes into its own in her second book, You and Three Others Are Approaching A Lake. This book is largely comprised of four long poems, each inspired by a different book—yet the poems also include thought experiments, asides, true and false etymologies, excerpts from website comments sections, dialogues between chat-bots, and autobiography, among many other elements. The “kinky line” of Moschovakis’s poetic thought creates a space where even an obviously false etymology may open up a new line of thought:
(“The theologians” is an attractive phrase sounds laughable but
with an underbelly like all my subjects)
(It also reminds me that the words “theology” and “logic” are
related by the root word, “log” and that when I was young a
log was a bridge that got you safely to the other side)
(“Death as a Way of Life,” You and Three Others)
While the “log” enters the poem through a sort of free-associative backdoor, Moschovakis immediately puts it to work, including it in the poem’s landscape, where it becomes a tool wielded—possibly simultaneously—in several ways. Two stanzas later, this “log” has transformed again, into “a weapon/ the weapon a float/ to fight over.” The long poem allows these sorts of shifts a space in which to move, expand, and resonate.
They and We, published last spring, similarly consists of a set of four long poems. These poems take up the subjects of religious and romantic faith (“Paradise (Film Two)”); of illness, privilege, empathy, and identity (“What It Means to Be Avant-Garde”); of translation and linguistic/cultural difference (“Flat White (20/20)”); and, in an untitled poem that runs along the bottom of the book’s pages (possibly the book’s title poem?), of individual and group identity in a time of violence. Her speakers are, above all, conversationalists—they read, translate, correspond, and think, materializing this thinking in poems as a fundamentally collaborative process.
But collaboration is not necessarily smooth—and in They and We, as in her earlier work, Moschovakis is especially interested in the problem of the self (“we”) and the other (“they”), and the complications that arise in attempting to connect the two, especially across differing levels of access to cultural and political power. This concern may appear in the framework of literary translation, as in the book’s final poem, “Flat White (20/20),” which combines a translated poem (“Cafe Sans Sucre” by Algerian poet Samira Negrouche) with a translator’s meta-commentary. In this poem, Moschovakis documents her struggles to find English-language equivalents to Negrouche’s words (on the problem of translating Negrouche’s title, Le jazz d’oliviers: “the problem with jazz...is Broadway and fourth grade dance class have you never / \ heard of a thing called jazz hands—”). But these problems coexist with less specific, and more complex, ones. “I’m afraid to ask after the ratio of banal to dramatic in your day or your year,” Moschovakis writes, registering an uncertainty about how, as a translator and correspondent, to address the uneven global distribution of power and violence—and the similarly uneven distribution of knowledge about the effects of these inequalities.
Moschovakis is interested in these inequalities of power and knowledge on both the local and the global scale, as she writes of “the white light of LA or New York,” the cities of her birth and her long-term residence. This “white light” is an image from David Antin; of it, she writes, “if you were raised in the center you know what [Antin] means—if you were born on the fringe I can’t know what you know”. This assertion—of both a shared cultural experience and the boundary of the knowledge this experience entitles one to—is perhaps an especially lucid formulation of the problem of point of view for the avant-garde writer, or the first-world writer, or the writer working from a position of educational, social, or economic privilege. By describing the limits inscribed by this position rather than naturalizing its effects, Moschovakis again suggests the possibility of an ethics of perceptual clarity.
The stakes of this need for clarity are made most forcefully visible in the long poem that runs across the bottom of They and We’s pages. In this poem, these categories of “we” and “they” may blend—may become “WETHEY” or even “THWEY,” but only under certain conditions. “WETHEY” appears for the first time in this passage: “[WETHEY ARE HAPPENING IN] [THE ROOM] [RADICALLY] [REFT] [OF THE ABSOLUTE],” suggesting that the two parties may be combined or placed in direct contact only in the face of a radical deprivation. “THWEY” arises in the even starker passage: “[THWEY GOT DEATH] [IN COMMON] [LET IN THE] [COMMONALITY OF] [DEATH] [ALLOW THE SMOKING] [OF CIGARETTES IN THE ROOM].” In both cases, the breakdown between the “we” and “they” occurs within an atmosphere of violence directed toward the absolute separation of the two groups in ideological if not actual terms:
THERE IS SOMETHING] [IN THE CORNER] [A BLANK] [FOR TRAINING SHOOTERS TO SEE] [OTHER SHOOTERS] [ENTANGLED] [THEY] [THE ABSOLUTE SINGULAR] [THEY] [OF THE SINGULAR] [OPEN BRACKET]
Moschovakis’s formulation of the hybrid “THWEY” appears, above all, to be a response to this military production of “[THEY] [THE ABSOLUTE SINGULAR].” Indeed, the possibility of any “absolute singular” might be the central impulse against which the bulk of her writing is directed. In the present moment of rising xenophobia and closing borders, “THWEY” is an assertion of the “THE] [COMMONALITY OF] [DEATH]” as the true basis for understandings of identity—a far more important basis than any rhetoric directed at either group or individual self-similarity. In a passage in “Flat White (20/20)” dealing with translation and terminology, Moschovakis writes “I would prefer not to be wrong / about certain / \ terms / \ among them ‘night sweats’ with which I am \ familiar thanks to my / thanks to everyone’s / \ condition.” This slip from “my condition” to “everyone’s condition” is key: in Moschovakis’s poetry, we must always ask why we might distinguish between these two entities.
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MC Hyland is founding editor of DoubleCross Press, and is currently working on a dissertation on the poetics of the commons, as well as on an ongoing poetic research project on walking, friendship, and publishing. She is the author of the poetry collection Neveragainland and of several poetry chapbooks, most recently THE END PART ONE, forthcoming from Magic Helicopter Press.