They and We Will Get into Trouble for This

by Stephen Burt

Moschovakis has never been content with separable single poems: her books are projects, in dialogue with the form of the personal essay; with the linguistic ambitions of philosophers, memoirists, and art historians; and with her translations from the French. Here the project takes in the form of the book itself, whose running footers—almost like cable-news chyrons—convey aphorisms like Jenny Holzer’s: “[IN THE CORNER] [A BLANK] [FOR … [THEY] [THE ABSOLUTE SINGULAR].” The rest of the pages hold four provocative projects, each in its own brand of poetic prose: “Flat White (20/20)” responds to the process by which Moschovakis translated the Algerian Francophone poet Samira Negrouche, while “Room,” considers life as an act of flawed interpretation—“since I’ve divorced myself from Arabic calligraphy I’m afraid that the mountain of books will transform itself to a wave of indecipherable signs.” Another project uses the talk-poem format pioneered by David Antin to think about the unsettled attitudes toward history and identity that Antin (in Moschovakis’s view) might share with left-wing movements in Greece, and with the Roma, or Gypsies: “the Gypsies have no origin myth—which means they’re bonded primarily by language.” As if that weren’t enough, Moschovakis also thinks about her own never-named medical “condition,” mixing in psychiatric diagnostic tests (“I feel downhearted and blue Most of the time”) with her own recollections. If that sounds like a mess, the book never feels like one. Instead it feels smart, unsettled—at times evasive, and at others so straightforward that it hurts: “around the time I started searching I stopped dreaming I was free.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.