Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2011. 132 pages. $16.
The poems in Anna Moschovakis’ second collection investigate philosophical and ethical questions about morality, labor, and art, as well as the very terms we use to approach these fundamental human experiences. Often, we categorize our experiences in discrete units, to better understand and order the world around us. In You and Three Others, the language of mutual exclusivity breaks apart, failing to adequately describe what it is to live in a world of excessive waste, in a society that undermines its best interests. Like Rosmarie Waldrop or George Oppen, from whom she takes an epigraph, Moschovakis builds a space where the “absolute truth” of the senses can interact with the “necessary truth” of human reason and its often impermeable categorical boundaries. More often than not, as Moschovakis demonstrates, when observable facts collide and make a mess of emotional responses, the results aren’t easy to predict.
You And Three Others Are Approaching A Lake is composed of four sections, each named after a nonfiction text Moschovakis draws on for inspiration and material: “The Tragedy of Waste,” “Death as a Way of Life,” “The Human Machine,” and “In Search of Wealth.” These are weighty titles, heavy ideas, and the poems in this book treat them with the care and respect of a treatise on globalization and greed, artificial intelligence and identity, and the malleability of language within rigid systems of linguistics. In less capable hands, You and Three Others could be just another conceptual project, the kind Dorothea Lasky cautions against in her chapbook, Poetry Is Not A Project. By allowing a concept to artificially control the arc of the book, such poetic projects constrict the creative impulse and hinder variety. Ultimately, Lasky maintains, if you really “know” your project, if you don’t allow your poems to breathe, you’ll write some pretty boring poems (Lasky’s chapbook was put out last year by Ugly Duckling Presse, where Moschovakis serves as an editor). Moschovakis’ poems are driven by something bigger than the urge to write “about” any one of her topics. Rather, You and Three Others uses the friction between concept and product to examine how the formal exploration of art and capitalism butts up against the limits of what a book can be, like a match striking its box. Through these constraints, Moschovakis cracks open the language of protest, applies pressure, and lets the flame ignite.
In these lines from “The Tragedy of Waste,” Moschovakis pairs domestic labor with the recognizable solitude of a writer hard at work making sense of the world:
There is no internal price system
Mother does not charge for frying eggs
nor Father for shaking down
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
The muted voice of the speaker, which frames the melting snow beyond the writer’s desk, moves swiftly between social commentary and more common forms of poetic observation (of the writer’s environment, of the universality of consumption). This careful balance serves the book’s investigative nature well; poetry is never abandoned for exegesis, and the philosophical is grounded in the everyday cruelty of weather and woodpeckers. Whether Moschovakis’ poems are crunching numbers or incorporating data from the Internet—How many animals killed during one of Louis XV’s hunting excursions? How many people, “[a]ccording to the World Wide Web . . . have actually given up their fortunes?”—she never flinches from the difficulty of incorporating social or political critique into art: “the challenge: to start / not with theory but with tangible performance.”
Many of these poems indict social and historical injustices and our collective willingness to allow these offenses to continue, in a way that resonates with our current political sinkhole of corporate bailouts and constant wrangling over our devastated, struggling economy. The book’s critiques play out on many stages. Moschovakis takes us from the early industrial era to the lavish courts of the French nobility; through the imagined love letters of an award-winning chatbot and down the rabbit hole of Craigslist posts. The common theme of contemporary violence ties these subjects together. Not only do we face blood spilled on the ground, but we are also asked to consider our own roles in the epistemological and linguistic ruptures humans have forced upon themselves through globalization: “Made nervous by our shift in capabilities, we write . . . // Hit ‘publish’ and look away // The New Violence: I visited a country where everything looked like home.”
Yet even amidst her critique, Moschovakis provides relief through lighter moments, as in this playful encounter between religion and art:
that the worship of science,
logic, art, law, political theory,
fresh fruit, philosophy, conversation,
Yosemite National Park, a woman’s right
to stick to her plan, olives, justice, and
can’t kill a church
What can a grammar kill?
Later, more playfully and yet deadly serious, she asks: “What can a poem kill?” Here is a bleak, familiar vision of the human need to create ultimately and inexorably leading to destruction: the productive capitalist impulse at its most dangerous, the “efficiency” of the human machine spinning its wheels in the face of fear, desire, and inequity. Yet out of this wastefulness, Moschovakis reminds us, also comes the desire to create—and possibly it is this creative force, when unleashed from a system of production and wielded as a form of critique, that can check human impulses destructive to our social well-being and the natural world. Certainly You and Three Others is one such attempt to breathe beauty back into this landscape. Yet, the book leaves pressing questions about the (inextricable?) nature of wastefulness and art in a global capitalist system open and unanswered. If we are to have a project in poetry at all, I hope it continues to apply pressure on this relationship: how will we combat our culture of wastefulness, of willful obsolescence, through art, if—to some degree—art arises from waste, leisure, decadence? What can we ask our poems to kill?