This first book of poems by Anna Moschovakis, I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone(Turtle Point Press, 2006), gives a hint of its wit in the title. Is the tone urgent? Or a little fed up? Does it imply the connection between writer and reader has been irrevocably broken? Who doesn’t dream of being able to deliver perfect, fully persuasive communication? Or, who does? The author of these poems is a post-modern, post-911, skeptical speaker/writer of English (it isn’t “very good/ for a certain kind of inventioning” (2)), concerned with ethics, the limits of irony, and – comfortably, rambunctiously – sex. Moschovakis signals promptly that she is a poet with a philosophical bent – even the untitled prefatory poem works in that analytical word “alterity.” What words mean, how they work in a sentence, their grammar, is very much part of her subject. She manages intelligent investigation into the mobility of words and sentences, while making lively, humane poems.
Each of the book’s seven sections is a single poem, developed in a series. “Thought Experiments” is the first: it consists of five prose poems, the titles of which are each provided with a note of explanation, along these lines: Thought Experiment: The Ring of Gyges* *In which one who previously swallowed invisible desserts happens upon a weapon with which to conquer the tyranny of consequences.” (7) The poem, flanked by these guides, is…well, it’s not going to deliver that very desirable weapon. It does, however, in its setting inside a subway car, give the feel of a jumble of subway riders, one reading, another reading over that one’s shoulder, all of the passengers filled with interesting and imperfect ideas, jostling in the accident of the moment that holds them together, while “Up on the roof, two rows of handles rock noiselessly back and forth. Nobody uses them: nobody reaches up there.” (7) Something fine happens in the way that last image prevails, as if all those handles should have a use, one that might be very important to us, if we only understood. A character named Mary appears twice in the series, but the poems are firm in their resistance to narrative; pronouns may, but need not, have an obvious referent; new words are born (“the forestscan, the cornucump, the mar” 6), and syntax is given the first of many good shakings.
The second section, called “The Match,” consists of six very funny brief poems, a mini-creation that takes place from Day 1 to Day 6. These are incisive, offbeat reveries on what contact might be like between George (Herbert), the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet, and Jack (Spicer), the hard-drinking avant-garde California poet who died at forty in 1965. Sometimes the two are imagined in dialogue; sometimes it’s only the speaker in whom the two connect. There is rather more of Jack than George, even in the structure of the series. Following Spicer, who repudiated the writing of single poems as “one night stands,” and whose book Admonitions is in the form of letters, Moschovakis, dedicates “The Match” to a friend, addresses her directly in one epistolary section, and seems to conceive of the whole poem as almost a dare to see what in these two poets can touch. On day 2 the poet’s confidence falters – bringing the two poets together will not (although it does) yield a new poem for the poet: “There was more sun but the same darkness.” (14) The “match” is a coupling more than a contest, with Jack still wanting to drink, even from unreal bottles, and sticking his tongue in George’s ear.
Other matters are also brought into consideration. Here is day 4 in its entirety:
Abstinence can actually alter your desires
or make them disappear.
The person you wanted to consume
becomes something you wear around your neck
or taste gingerly on your knees
leave enough for everyone (16)
The voice of experience. A confession, possibly, with a certain wisdom. At the same time, with the word “abstinence” we are on religious ground (drawing a little closer to Herbert, for a moment), as the kneeling, the image of a scapular or a cross worn around the neck, and the taking of communion further suggest. The poem is also erotic (“consume,” “taste…on your knees”). “Gingerly” becomes a thing in itself, noun-like, something savory, bold, and desirable enough to deserve the warning of the last line. The last line is more than generous – it would be a miracle, “enough for everyone.” It commands: whatever the good is, it is to be shared. Punctuation disappears. The imperative stays open. Also diagnostic, the poem observes: sex is powerful, so powerful that sublimation may bring you to devotion – or obsessional delusion. Is Moschovakis asking how a religious poet is made? Part of the delicacy of the poems is how they touch on such matters, opening them into the atmosphere without reducing them to argument.
“Preparations,” a poem in six sections, roams between the ordinary world and Plato’s cave. What do we need to prepare for? Nuclear fallout, pollution, an infestation of rodents? These are mentioned. There is no suggestion that any of our preparations (and modern life is oppressively full of them) will alter a truth she notes: “It seems the situation/ has retained the upper hand” (30). This is also a poem about reading, language, narrative, ironic distance, and several characters, including Sally, Plato, man, and “manly woman.” One other line (from the “Second Preparation”) that stays with me is, “Stop counting./ There are no billionaires/ of sensation.”
With “The Blue Book,” Moschovakis begins an eight-poem series that bows deeply to the philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein. These block-like poems are composed of single sentences, generally twenty-seven to a poem, delivered straightforwardly in a conversational tone. This is not to say there are no surprises. I look again to one of Jack Spicer’s tenets for how to read them: “Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.” [“Second Letter,” Admonitions.] And so, as one reads between poems, a number of subjects arise: value, the difference between progression and progress, names, description, agency, judgments, that old friend the mind-body problem, and, above all, certainty. For those who enjoy philosophy, this analytical play is the seductive part of the poem, and the poem itself can be seen as a small discourse. Its heart, however, is personal, and there is no doubt that Moschovakis transcends discourse with poetry.
“The Blue Book” deepens the reader’s intimacy with the speaker – it’s more confiding, and there is a reliable “I” who is troubled by the problem of how the distinguishing feature of a thing changes (a tree, a name, identity) and becomes “more detailed as I notice more details.” (33). A political edge runs through the series as well, quietly questioning what defines progress, tradition, truth – reality itself. Under this wide range of concerns also runs the theme of sexual intimacy.
It has to be said that sometimes the development of her idea comes across as naïve:
Progression seems less problematic as a concept than progress.
I wonder if that is because it lacks connotation of value.
I wonder why value as a concept seems problematic. (33)
Sometimes the logic is highly controlled as she launches the terms she wants to play with:
Often a game of chance is actually fixed.
A fixed game wears an invisible character of certainty.
Invisibility can coincide with or diverge from transparency. (47)
But most pleasingly, for this reader, the speaker demonstrates the kinds of change in perspective that she is experiencing, which the seventh poem in the series does fully. Perhaps it affects me most strongly because it is more unified in its presentation: the speaker observes a woman reading on the subway. The book she is reading is titled Letting Go of the Past. The speaker fastens on the woman in a now-familiar widening spiral of reverie. It begins:
The woman on the subway leans her head on the window.
She, like may people, is reading a book.
The book’s title is reflected in the window opposite her.
Imperfections in a text are addressed by editing.
Some see this process as tending toward perfection.
Imperfections in a life are addressed by forgetting. (45)
As a whole, “The Blue Book” suggests that while we can’t have philosophical certainty, and ought not to have the political certainties we have had about “others,” up close we still have, can’t help having, what she calls elsewhere in the collection the feeling of “tender certainty.” A kind of integrity marks the speaker’s examination of ways in which reality is contingent. Are we being given a defense of relativism? A philosophical investigation? Perhaps. But having internalized the philosophical quandary of how a thing can be changeable and still certain, the poet explores the ethical and psychological consequences. In this world, intimacy itself is a gamble, a game of chance: she’s clear on that. The series concludes: “Sex between two people contains a kind of coincidence./ Its meaning is both certain and changeable.” (48)
“Dependence Day Parade” loosens up the distribution of words upon the page, the subject matter presents itself in fragments (jokes about Independence Day, thoughts about America, war, private property, beauty, adept play with clichés), and the poem, occurring in thirteen sections, is like a net that brings up a variety of creatures from the deep in what may be an American small town. Throughout, partly because of her style and partly because of her intelligence, Moschovakis manages to capture the gaps between what we say, what we mean, and what’s really happening, and she understands that we are troubled by those gaps. Something of the poet’s humor and bite can be glimpsed in this short section:
(A Brief History of American Dependence:
one touchy subject led to another touchy subject
and we talked about it
while sitting on our hands) (58)
I am very fond of something called “the echo machine,” which the speaker says is a problem in town: every line is repeated as a question, which has the appropriately disconcerting effect:
The poets are knocking
(are the poets knocking
Their time has come
(has their time come (60)
In its variety, good thinking, and good music, this is a poem with a great deal to offer.
“The Dead Man Looks Into His Own Dead Ear” is an unusual ekphrastic poem, said to have been prompted by a drawing of Vladimir Simakov’s. Presumably the image that generated the poem resembles, in some way, the curious action described by the title. The central character in the poem is named “I,” which leads to some very amusing effects when I is treated in the third person: “What, I wonders, has I been doing/ all these years?” (79) “I” is a thinker, of course, who wonders about death, appearances, epistemology, “earness” – you get the general idea. He is hungry; he masturbates; he believes that if you learn and then forget, you can learn it again: “I takes this as a philosophy/ of sorts.” (91) Sometimes, even “I” gets overwhelmed:
I is silent. He is fighting off
Words & things. Once, I remembers,
He was on his way
To the car that carries
All creatures to be
Against the graying over sky (81)
The musical pacing and placement of Moschovakis’s language shows precision:
Like the blue
Back of a blue
From the late,
Blue side (82)
As she continues to play with the changing functions of an ear that is dead, one section of the poem uses anaphora to great lyrical effect, listing all the things that “I cannot hear…”:
…I cannot hear any aftermath
I cannot hear the heavy harness
I cannot hear the almost-free
I cannot hear the sunset train… (85)
Sometimes the poetry moves into a realm where you just want to sit down and think about it. And, to my ear, perhaps because of the shifts in her diction, there are also rewarding echoes from John Berryman’s Dream Songs:
And doesn’t everyone
Know that heat & cold
Meet in middles
At pain’s place?
I goes there often and
Without a map
To wipe his brain on. (88)
It’s a wonderful poem in its thoughts, its expression, its humor.
The book concludes with a short three-part series called “Winter Songs.” The language is immediately more abstract, more fragmented still, and seems to be a kind of meditation that takes Athens as its starting point, ancient and contemporary, still being excavated, still under construction…like a language. Here and there, the writing is more opaque, but as always, the struggle of making meaning continues:
It’s not the battle of
image to word
but that thing on
the other side
of the back of the wall
of the cave’s backwall
And the battle is Moschovakis’s struggle to see what’s true and to make a true representation – a war that, by all the evidence, she is winning.