on They and We Will Get into Trouble for This by Anna Moschovakis

Is it possible to know whether the work we do makes any difference or whether the tasks and actions with which we fill our hours are meaningful? At my job I frequently employ diagrams called logic models—tools that can be used to plan, design, and evaluate strategies and projects. Typically represented through a series of boxes and arrows, a logic model attempts to show an explicit progression from thought to action to desired outcome.

“Some version of logical thinking is soothing to most people,” says poet and translator Anna Moschovakis in an interview at The Conversant, and her interest in systematic, rational thought is evident in her latest collection, They and We Will Get into Trouble for This. But if logical thought provides the scaffolding for this book, Moschovakis’ lived experience—bodily and personal—animates her inquiry.

Composed of three sections, her third full-length collection is subtly linked by a single, continuous line of text that runs along the bottom of each page. Reminiscent of television captioning, it is rather unobtrusive, but unavoidable—Moschovakis’ nod perhaps to the persistent fear of missing out (or “FOMO,” which she herself references early on) that seems to pervade our social media–saturated time. 

Moschovakis counts among her influences philosophers, scientists, visual artists, and writers, and she draws also from film, television, and the Internet. The agility and rigor she brings to making connections between and among these varied sources calls to mind the virtuosity of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and the fierce intelligence of Kate Colby’s I Mean. (These are the women, in fact, of my imagined perfect dinner party, along with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and with Anne Carson presiding.) 

What Moschovakis accomplishes transcends simple logical or linguistic associations, allowing the ligatures themselves to be sites of rich exploration. Consider this passage from “Paradise (Film Two)”:

. . . I am working in paradise || There’s a bird here that makes || a noise
like a typewriter || Smith Corona or Olivetti || a manual || I don’t know
what bird it is || I don’t know the story || of Adam and Eve || except in
its vulgar

outline || I have thought about reading it || in the bible || but there are
so many other books || I want to get to || first || I thought || I could kill
two || birds with one stone || so to speak || by reading it in || French || to
practice my comprehension || so that in some sense it would constitute
|| work || I turn pages under birds || of paradise || to try to find the passage
|| can’t || There is one story from the bible || I know quite well || the one

about Abraham || and his son Isaac || I know it from its appearance || in
Fear and Trembling || by Kierkegaard

In these few lines, Moschovakis introduces complex and provocative concerns: the nature of paradise, the limitations of faith, the descriptive exhilaration of language (“kill two / birds with one stone”) as well as its strangeness. She likewise examines the nature of violence and under what circumstances killing might be permissible. Later, when she states that the French translation of the story of Abraham uses the word “holocaust” where she would have expected to see “sacrifice,” she seeks out the etymology of the former and, in so doing, suggests the complexities of translation and the cultural, symbolic, and historical weight that languages carry. She learns that:

                                                                                    . . . ‘Holocaust’ it turns out
|| does mean ‘sacrifice || to the gods’ || or || etymologically || something
like ‘burnt whole’ || The preferred term for the extermination of Jews is
now ‘Shoah’ || for ‘catastrophe’ || the Greek origin of which || combines
’ down’ with || ‘turn’ || as in ‘a sudden end’ || or ‘reversal of the || expected’
|| a definition || that emphasizes || the result of the thing ||

While a reader can understand from this discussion why the term “Shoah” may be preferable, there is certainly no comfort to be taken in this knowledge. Whatever representation of “catastrophe” may be available to us here—however nuanced the terms we use—it cannot possibly contain the truth of the experience of the Holocaust. 

A logic model is no guarantee of logic—the chart after all can be only as sound as the thinking that produces it—and the danger in seeing a visual representation of a path of causality is that one is tempted to consider it to be both complete and “true.” More often than not, I have seen logic models function as deterministic and incomplete approximations—a means of validating what is already assumed, produced with limited domain expertise and the vested interest of those presenting it, and without accommodation for unintended consequences. To then use this model as a standard by which to measure progress is to continually re-legitimize the complacency of thought that produced it. 

Moschovakis’ project is to resist such complacency. One way she does this is by questioning subjectivity. By challenging the authority of the “self,” she attempts to destabilize the process through which causal conclusions can be drawn. 

The book’s second section, “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde,” borrows its title from the David Antin collection of the same name. Moschovakis uses a series of declarative statements repurposed from online self-diagnostic tests—“I feel downhearted and blue Most of the time. / Morning is when I feel the best Some of the time. . . . I have trouble sleeping at night A little of the time. . . .”—to discuss an “unexplained” medical condition, and she juxtaposes this with more narrative commentary on travel, transience, and “outsider” status. Ultimately she is offering a meditation on empathy and on how “the light [of being an “insider”] makes it hard to see”:

. . . growing up in a metropolis can make you soft—I’ve been
going to the same art institutions most of my life—you have
the sense you should be heading inevitably for the center—
when people ask me where I live I say the middle of nowhere
—under certain circumstances it requires effort to stay on
the fringe

She worries about becoming “inured to [my] condition—the way explorers acclimate to the thin air up high,” and this attention to her position (literal and symbolic) in relation to others offers another way to look at interconnectedness. 

A consideration of subjectivity—present even in the deliberate distinction between “they” and “we” of the book’s title—requires willingness to destabilize any unified notion of self. “My writing begins most often in the experience of discomfort, lack of mastery, or failure, and the decision to interrogate it in language,” Moschovakis writes in an artist statement, and although a logic model (at its best) can facilitate such an inquiry, more frequently its use requires oversimplifying complex human motivations and interactions, offering its user a false sense of comfort. The discomfort Moschovakis references instead invites “an experimental faith || a humble, vulnerable faith . . .” in which we can acknowledge the porousness of boundaries between ourselves and others: “in other words, contagion || suggesting we are not contained || within the contours of our || bodies || the outlines || of our skin.” 

This fluidity is expressed, too, in the final section of the book, “Flat White (20/20),” a series of translations of Algerian poet Samira Negrouche, interspersed with Moschovakis’ own responses to Negrouche’s poems. Translation has its roots in “to carry” and “to transport, transfer.” Moschovakis moves beyond the words and ideas transferred between the two poets to the memory and knowledge of people she has known. She writes, “Samira you are my third Samira” and we witness her turning over in her own mind this notion of porousness: Where does one person end and another begin? We are carried back to the “language of halfness in Aristophanes’ speech” that she references earlier in the book: 

the origin of longing || how we have all been split in two || bro-
ken || each half doomed to wander || ‘far and wide’ || in search of || the
other

The idea of contagion is rooted in the body. Consider the physicality of the lived experience in this passage from Negrouche:

I say that to write the most banal things you must first
write of your birth of your mother of your father of the
love of bodies of women and men of rapists and assassins
of incest and night sweats and of the hunger of the desert

While models of rational thought require a suppression of the body—its unexplained illnesses, its diseases, and its suffering—Moschovakis foregrounds bodily experience. By using the metaphor of contagion, she brings perspective on the interconnectedness of people and events through history, but also situates her work in its current sociopolitical context: never before have the boundaries of nations been so porous. Our decisions and actions have consequences for the lives of people we may never meet and places we may never see. “I type what would an ethical happiness look like,” and she is asking this of us all. Isn’t it empathy, after all, that engenders curiosity and propels inquiry? She asks, “I wonder if this is what [David] Antin means—to be alive in the perfectly reasonable shabby human light—my hand ahead of my heart ahead of my hand.” 

In these utilitarian times, poets and artists are frequently required to defend the value of their pursuits, where value is synonymous with eliminating uncertainty and monetizing output. The frequent use of logic models by private and government funders to predict the worth of a particular intervention or program should not surprise us.

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“It seems to me,” Moschovakis stated in a 2007 interview, “that a net-positive change in the world, from poetry from anything, is unlikely, and its desirability doesn’t make it any more possible.” To desire change is not in itself unethical; nor is applying our methodology to the projects, services, and activities we pursue. In her work, however, Moschovakis seems to aspire to a more ambitious methodology, one that is not content to explain how to get from one thought to the next, but requires us to more rigorously interrogate our assumptions, and embrace inevitable uncertainties, so that a more inclusive, expansive, and empathetic understanding of our own experiences might emerge.

 

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Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 100 pp. $16.95, paper.

 

Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in a number of literary and art journals, including Tin House, Day One, and Hyperallergic. She serves on the Advisory Committee for the Rumpus.