They And We Will Get Into Trouble For This is three long poems, and the middle one, “What It Means To be Avant-Garde” is the key, and best, because I think it’s the question Moschovakis is asking herself: how to do Pound’s ‘Make it new’ these days, while still having something to say, some type of (narrative) story to tell. Because Moschovakis doesn’t just want to be a Language poet, just doesn’t just want to play with and break apart language for its own sake or for political reasons. She still feels that language is for communication and larger than politics (that is, language can question politics, as she does, a little, in here). The poet whose name she drops the most here is David Antin, who wrote/spoke narrative poems in new way in the 80s, when narrative poetry was very much under attack.
So Moschovakis is taking a little from all of the big poetry traditions: in They And We Will Get Into Trouble For This you will find narrative, or narratives, but they will be a little broken up, and woven together. And you will find strict structures/forms, of her own devising. And there is some collage: seemingly (at first) random section separating the narrative, in which there are some Language-Poetry playfulness and denseness, and the playful part is also from the New York School type of poetry, very effective in “What It Means To Be Avant-Garde,” a series of almost ‘found’ poems taken from what must be some kinds of personality tests, with the questions and answers run together:
I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation Strongly agree
I prefer animals to humans Strongly disagree
I try to keep up with the current trends and fashions Mildly agree
I dream most nights No answer
I really enjoy caring for other people.
I try to solve my own problems rather than discussing them with others.
I find it hard to know what to do in a social situation.
I am at my best first thing in the morning.
The thing about these self-help-ish interludes is that I am not ever sure if this is Moschovakis revealing herself slant-wise, or more of a satire, mocking the psycho-babble language. I think it’s somehow both, or somewhere in between, and sometimes lines like “I dream most nights No answer” reveal on different levels: Is Moschovakis refusing us entry into her dreams? Or is there no answer to her dreams? Again, both and/or in between.
Which is super intriguing, and engaging to read, and ‘new’ in the Poundian sense. I also like Moschovakis’ visual style in a lot of these poems: she’s finding her own form, finding a more accessible way than, say, Alice Notley in incorporating line breaks (or, symbols for them) into prose poems, either with the long dash (which actually Kerouac used way back) or most interestingly with the combinations of forward and backward slashes, like in this section of a section from the third section, “Flat White”:
here in front of you across the world I see the word pain
multiplied on the page /\ Pain as a demand upon a Higher
Telos and The Phenomenally Ego-Alien Nature of Pain
and at the top The Paradox of the Function of Pain and we
Know that pain pronounced pan spells bread in \ one of
your extramarital \ tongues //….
Style-wise kinda cool, though this section is a good example of my nagging sense that overall They And We Will Get In Trouble For This is stronger on style than on content. I don’t find the stretch from ‘pain’ to the spanish word for bread profound, or even interesting. It’s the kind of thing a first year spanish student would do, which doesn’t sound like Moschovakis, since in other parts of the book she drops in some fairly fluent French, Latin and Greek.
Some readers will be perfectly fine with this. I just feel that if a poet is going to put effort into the narrative sections, then the narratives should be just as strong. Or, powerful. Or, profound? Wise? Engaging? Sometimes I’m not even sure what certain sections are doing in these longer poems, like this early one from the third, “Flat White,”:
She served me a watery cup in a bowl the color of earth
she said I’ve written a novel but the diskette is broke she
said look at my olive trees I have dreamed of an orchard /\
long I walk /\ down three steps I see weeds in the distance
ablaze in the sun a lemon tree bent in defense like blind
forward /\ on the football field /\ I say it’s a handsome your
field /\ of olives try a new brand of diskette.
To me, the last line of this prose poem section falls flat. It’s not funny. The diskette is, I guess, a metaphor for writing. The practical advice (‘try a new brand of diskette’) sounds trite, and I kind of get that the key word is ‘new’, going back to avant-garde-ness and Pound-ness, but the advice only ever seems to come out that if you’ve written a novel (because the situation is not that the other person in the poem is writing a novel—it’s done), and you can’t print it (get it printed? get it published?) try something new. Well, ok, fine. Maybe that is good advice—it is after all basically a rewording of Pound’s.
I lied about They And We Will Get Into Trouble For This: There’s actually a fourth poem, which begins before the others, and runs in a single line along the bottom of each page, starting, “ [ What is in the room ] [ How are we in the room ] ” which, (again) I guess, begins the larger Heideggerian questions of being/Being, and what being/Being means, and how to be/Be in the world/World. Style-wise it’s certainly ‘new.’ Unfortunately it’s also really hard to read, both for the language, and especially for the format. But I’m not sure the Heideggerian questions get answered. Not that they maybe could be, and sometimes just the asking is all we can do, because being/Being is in constant change.
“What It Means” and the first poem, “Paradise (Film Two)” most especially, show how poetry can be visually different and still accessible, reading-wise. But this unnamed poem running along the bottom of the whole book, rather than uniting or informing the rest of the poems, just distracts, though I sense that Moschovakis (and maybe Coffee House Press) think it’s the most important part.
Still, They And We Will Get into Trouble For This an interesting read. That’s more than I could say about 95% of books of poetry out there now, and Moschovakis reminds me—no, refreshes me, her work is refreshing, in that she’s re-thinking poetry, keeping it curious and questioning, and yet accessible, while making it new.