(Coffee House Press, 2011)

You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake is about persons and materials and their relations, aka history. Its title, which is also the first line of a poem called “The Tragedy of Waste,” announces this vast subject as though it were a a minor logic problem or one of Peter Singer’s stagey ethical quandaries. It also hails a second person and, in so doing, cleaves her from the three “others” as they approach a life-giving source. What will happen when they get there has already happened: it’s the history of inequal distribution and resource-extraction, but the title keeps “you,” and the three others that outnumber her, from getting there, which it can do because it’s art. Moschovakis’ book is not only about history but about what poetry can say about it and about how it might distinguish its own activity (“What, precisely, is your procedure?”) from the tragedy of waste taking place everywhere off the page. Before “The Tragedy of Waste,” “Death as a Way of Life,” “The Human Machine,” and “In Search of Wealth” (all appropriated titles from a used bookstore) comes a prologue I want to call a sonnet of primitive accumulation, a prologue to the waste, thanatos, mechanization, and phantom wealth that the following poems will figure. Each successive stanza swells by one line (from 2 to 3 to 4 to 5), stopping at 14 but begun invertedly, with a petitionary couplet that reads “The problem is I don’t care whether I convince you or not / In a perfect world I could convince you of this.” This perfect world of the poem is left behind as the lines accumulate in a Prufrockian motion toward “the end of the argument,” which never comes because history’s imperfection is ongoing: “Each moment of courage or loss or revolution / When something pushed something and something fell down.” That terrible abstraction, bodily harm become entirely exchangeable pronouns, is also the sign of Moschovakis’ satiric and moving wit. It could be revolution or it could be fascism but until history stops in a perfect world those possibilities will just be trading places. Later in the book these somethings will come back as “Everything helping itself / to everything else,” another mordant ambiguity that either denotes a functional utopia or the hell of competing self-interests. The wit here is in the verb “helping,” which oscillates between eating and aiding. The book’s four long poems lack the prologue’s formal tidiness, but have their own species of accumulation, harvesting facts and statistics from their eponymous texts, other books, and the internet. In “Death as a Way of Life,” an inventory of birds killed on a hunting trip of Louis XV corresponds several pages later with the endangerment of three kinds of “uakari and 39 other mammals” in 1970 and a bishop’s confession “circa MCMLXX” that he’s “mad about shooting birds and animals.” It’s a wit of recombination: instead of le mot juste the right return, bent on opposing poetry’s critical reordering of terms to the serial crime of killing beings for sport or gain. The poem’s opening is the densest instance of this opposition between poetry and history: 

  1. Life is not fair
  2. How can I be happy while others suffer
  3. How can I not be happy while others suffer
  4. Others will suffer whether or not I am happy
  5. It is not the suffering of others that causes my happiness
  6. It is not the not-suffering of others that causes my unhappiness
  7. The not-suffering of others would not prevent my happiness
  8.  
8 is the power of repetition to turn away into poetry, to incompletion or the unentailed. For Moschovakis, this poetry will feign an affectless empathy in which the suffering of others matters but its mattering will be semi-clinically considered. In this it resembles the consideration of those who order the suffering, but, because this is poetry rather than policy, we feel all the affect of the affectless pose—it’s wicked, playful, melancholy, robotic. There’s even an “Annabot” in “The Human Machine” who tries to get to love through logic (and Alan Turing and Peter Singer and others). Its last page describes the entire book’s procedure:

 

The failure of machines to develop a sense of humor is well documented and can be understood by all persons who have been frustrated by failing to “get” a joke in a foreign language.

Some would call such understanding “empathy,” which might be said to bestow worthiness on the machine in question. 

         Such a machine would then, too, qualify as a “person”

 

If history has been the history of systems that turn persons into functions (human machines), Moschovakis’ poetry is a counter-system whose loving jokes and satiric repetitions reflood machinery with personhood.

 

 

                                                                                                                              

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