Jeremy Allan Hawkins
Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 112 pages. $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
What does it mean to be avant-garde? Does it require a specific set of practices, access to arcane knowledge, or membership to a certain school? Anna Moschovakis’s third collection, They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, might suggest experimental poetry requires formal devices, making use of non-standard forms on the page and in the layout of the book in order to disrupt convention. Her formal approaches, however, create new possibilities for meaning, and so prove to be integral to the content of the work. The result is a poetry that can be seen to rely on invention to generate new conceptual opportunities for what is essentially a lyric mode. If Moschovakis writes experimental poetry, it is in creating a lyric that thinks as much as it feels.
The opening line of poetry works as a first indication of these considerations, appearing not where we might expect it, but in the footer of the dedication page, coincident with the dedication to the poet’s grandmothers. “[ WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ROOM ] [ HOW ARE WE IN THE ROOM ],” the poem begins, and continues in the footer throughout the book until it concludes in a thicket of slashes just after the acknowledgements page. This untitled piece, with its unconventional use of brackets and a strong tendency against sense-making, breaks with the common “one poem per page” rule known by anyone familiar with poetry manuscript submission guidelines. Instead, the footer poem is the constant companion of the book’s other work, sometimes echoing those poems, but most often giving the appearance of having resulted from the arbitrary processes of layout and design.
These are not simply happy accidents, though. The interplay between the four long poems/sequences in They and We Will Get into Trouble for This deliberately echoes both internally and externally. When, for instance, the body of a poem mentions (however obliquely) David Antin’s writing on Vietnam in “the fringe,” the footer exclaims “[ THIS CONVICTION ] [ A TALE OF OUR WICKEDNESS / IT IS NOT ],” and sets feedback humming that is picked up elsewhere in the book. Moschovakis’s intertextuality reaches out to Antin, among others, but also operates on the level of the volume, and animates even the single page, with an effect that is as resonant as it is glancing. As with most Oulipo techniques, the devices Moschovakis uses may sometimes appear arbitrary, but they are anything but random. And so when a profusion of brackets confronts the reader in one poem, and double bars “||” in another, and then also unpredictable slashes in still another, the poet invites us to read these varying graphical marks as having significance, if not necessarily precise significations. The indeterminacy obliges multiple readings, suggestive of everything from formal logic operators to film cuts to traditional line breaks in quotation.
To be certain, though, the formal elements Moschovakis employs have stakes beyond the graphic and concrete. The gathering of what is normally kept separate plays out, for example, in the sequence “Flat White (20/20),” where Moschovakis interweaves twenty sections of what she calls her “often-corrupt translations” of a poem by Algerian poet Samira Negrouche, with twenty sections of her own poetry written in response. The result is a sequence that breaks down the division between poet and translator, and comes close to erasing whatever distinction was left between writing and translation. In a section attributed to Negrouche, the poet speaks of what precedes an encounter:
That which predisposes toward an encounter these are sometimes the four winds that become confused / telescope / on an eagle’s nest and the instant /\ word of love will cancel \/ really cancels /\ all the forces of opposition.
The cancelling of opposition is a recurring consequence of Moschovakis’s encounter with Negrouche, and even if response sections often address “Samira” directly, it is possible to read the sequence as a plurivocal unity, where the translated poet and poet-translator are intertwined in a text that looks outward and in on itself simultaneously.
Other oppositions receive even stronger treatment. As the untitled footer poem explores the “They and We” pairing found in the book’s title, for example, those pronouns morph into one all-encompassing plural, “thwey,” with an accompanying possessive of “thour,” creating possibilities for an English language that has never been more in need of pronominal invention:
[ THWEY CARRY NATIVENESS / TO A CONCLUSION / IN SUICIDE . . .
[ THWEY WALK INTO THE OTHERS ] [ WHO WAIT IN THOUR ] [ UNIFORMS ] [ STUPID ] . . .
New linguistic possibilities are also new possibilities for being, and while the creation of new ontological modes may appear to be a stratospheric aim for poetry, avant-garde or otherwise, it is worth asking if there really is any other principle at stake.
. . . TO SAY ] [ THAT THE PROBLEM ] [ IS REAL ] [ TO ASK ] [ WHOSE I IS THIS ANYWAY ] [ STATIC ] [ OF DECIPHERABLE ] [ WORLDS ] . . .
But perhaps the most important opposition troubled by Moschovakis’s work is between poetry and thinking. In “Paradise (Film Two),” she moves effortlessly through a surprising array of topics: Kierkegaard, science, the Bible, Medea, cell phones, and marriage liturgy, among others. The effect is of very intelligent, disembodied talking, as if we were simply listening in on a public intellectual’s spontaneous meditations. This is an illusion, however, created by a deft metonymic exploration of ideas. When Moschovakis writes in the poem of James Burke’s late ’70s television series Connections, “in which the host followed a trail || wherever it led || across time || space || and disciplinary divides,” she calls the show an “influence” on her work, but also puts on display the lyric engine operating in her book, where the connections made across divides distinguish her writing from narrative, exposition, or argument. Musicality and emotion have their places in the work as well, but the essential element of Moschovakis’s lyric tendency comes from the sort of thinking the poetry employs, both metonymic and connective.
Careful reading of They and We Will Get into Trouble for This reveals the many formal inventions Anna Moschovakis uses are perfectly coherent with a lyric tradition, and her formal choices are conceptual, in that they help generate meaning. So there are indications that these formal aspects of the work are not necessarily “what it means to be avant-garde”—the title of a poem/sequence in this volume—just as a poem’s use of found text, critical theory, and “a pail of Guggenheim piss” are not what it means, either. Rather, the poetry that redefines and extends the art form’s limits is always the one that provides the most interesting and fruitful answer(s) to the question: “What can poetry do . . . now?” They and We Will Get into Trouble for This may have its lineage in various traditions, but if we call it avant-garde or experimental, it is to say that it provides new ways of looking at what poetry can do at this very moment, broadening our perception of what was always possible. In that sense, it is a rich and momentous book, which should establish Anna Moschovakis as one of the most important poets writing today.