I Feel Discouraged About the Future: A Review of Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This

Natalie Eilbert



They and We Will Get into Trouble for This
by Anna Moschovakis
Coffee House Press
112 pp. / $16.95

If you look up the etymology of the word trouble, you’ll see that Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get into Trouble for This employs every incarnation of the meaning. First, circa 1200, it meant agitation of the mind, emotional turmoil. In the early fifteenth century, the definition expanded to include a cause for worry. Just a century later, there is a grander implication: unpleasant relations with the authorities. So the trajectory follows from existential to lawful transgression, with psychological murmurings fogging the middle panel. They and We Will Get into Trouble for This opens with the line, “I don’t know a thing about paradise,” an opening gesture that tempers faux curiosity as much as it disavows the setting of paradise. It is also an utterance that conveniently taps into the three essential tiers of trouble—trouble and paradise themselves in a dance of agnostic and moral argument.

And dance it does. This is a book of entanglement as much as a clean analysis of Moschovakis’s various selves. Its format dictates the arrangements of inquiry—that is, the process of writing is a veil of intentions, language a shroud that to be in possession of is to be suspicious of. The collection, if it can be described at all, operates in three parts, with a continuous thread running below each page. Much like the evolution of the word trouble, the sections quaver with implicit and then explicit themes of outlier or stranger in many countries over time. The line that runs through the entire book ripples with polyglottal leverage, elevating the transactions of the main scenes as much as it deflates these transactions, beginning its trajectory below the dedication of the book with “[ WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ROOM ] [ HOW ARE WE IN THE ROOM]” and ending on scansion–like brackets in the style of rolling credits. This thread of inquiry is an accurate metaphor for engaging and translating other languages; it is one of anxiety and whim, where meanings and word-mining are incidental or else intersectional experiences.

The first section, “Paradise (Film Two),” moves inside the concept of a film on writing about paradise; it is executed in ten-line bursts through the lens of philosophy and various institutions, whether academia or marriage. Espousing the writing of the film is the confusion of memory when language teases out or entraîne the experiment of living (“Entraîner: to pull or to carry || away or along; || to train; || to lead [to]; || to cause; bring about || an invitation || to a faith || a humble || experiment”). The second section, “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde,” graphs her condition to the examination of her condition  by incorporating  language from an Empathy Quotient Exam (“I have to push myself very hard to do anything. / I don’t sleep as well as I used to,” etc.). What does it mean that the ineffable surge of loss and dysphoria can be given diagnosis through the interrogation of words? “To probe oneself,” says Clarice Lispector, “is to recognize one is incomplete.” Espousing the survey of her condition is the agitation in misremembering texts, peppering the probe of living with the impressionistic quality of politics / surveillance / economics / justice (“splitting ‘sympathy’——into a complex mode of experience——in which the process of understand is reversed——from impression→idea——to idea→impression——there are many ways to think about loss”). The final section, “Flat White (20/20)” is perhaps the most deceptively paraphrasable part: a “compromised translation with, and for, Samira Negrouche.” Of course it gets itself into trouble as it capitalizes on this compromise, merging their private thoughts with “the birth . . . / the abortion of language.”

“Paradise (Film Two)” conforms most to its structure, maintaining the ten-line text blocks, enabling a steady stream of inquiry into Moschovakis’s own autobiographical frameworks. The syllabus she remembers meditates on the well-trod literature of The Symposium as much as it does the fact that Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was the only woman taught that semester—though a good one, a very good one. We read the text mass and we read the single running thread below. We are always in the midst of translating the depths of our experiences; philosophy is but one attempt at translating the inexplicable shambles of our livelihood. And so in this book we are given those extending lines of matter and thought; our eyes wander to that continuous running thread for insight, disorientation, latent madness, etc. It becomes important, how we choose to navigate the words on each page, whether we do so for information or the sensation of information. Back to the main text: Moschovakis remembers  that she wants to refine her French by reading the Old Testament en francais, and what we encounter instead is the psychic breaking down of sacrifice as a hollow act of paternalistic work:

. . . || The story of Abraham and Isaac is

|| five paragraphs long || is told simply || without psychologizing || The

characters are affectless || It’s like a script || waiting for actors || to fill it

with || emotion || When Freud said love and work || I assume he meant

meaningful || work || but it still seems || further definition || is required

|| When I say I’m working || in paradise || I refer to one kind || of work ||

to the writing of this || film

In the foreword to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (originally published under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio), Kierkegaard (or, de silentio) pronounces the role of the writer an indulgent one, one that “neither writes the System nor the promises of the System, who neither subscribes to the System nor ascribes anything to it.” This is an argument of faith and vanity. The parable of Abraham and Isaac was used to suggest the crisis of faith on his  [Kierkegaard’s] generation and it wrested on “incomplete movements” in the creation of art. If the root of system is “a whole compounded of parts,” then it must have been that Kierkegaard believed the author to be responsible for the broken system in which he found his generation. One could follow this demoralized enterprise of literature to now and they would find themselves in a system of broken parts fitting to our current mood, one at the brink of total annihilation.

Moschovakis, I believe, is also in the midst of a crisis, one in which the foundations of crisis hinge on her “work,” a term she isolates in scare-quotes for good reason. “Work” is one of those hollow, capital acts, and is a word primed acutely for its curriculum. What is meaningful work and what are the incomplete movements in any artform, and are we ever talking about one definition without negating the other?

In answer to this question of work and the machinations of work, Moschovakis utilizes interruption as a primary function. Her form honors disruption, whether by way of brackets or the action of turning each page. Either way the meaning is spliced, and part of distinguishing the line is mentally seaming it back together. The film on paradise is an exercise toward failure, the anxiety of misrepresentation, and the vaulting of memories that lack code and glyph outside their experiences. Remembering, after all, is a special kind of encryption. Concluding this bantam is the circular portrait of the artist, one very much in line with Kierkegaard’s troubling figure but one that services its function of vanity:

If you want to know || I failed to follow || instructions || I got lost for a while || This was years ago || I forgot || my camera || and had to take || pictures || on my phone || I shared them with everyone || and saved them all || for myself.

Moschovakis is a poet of academic nerves, one whose pitch echoes in an autoclave of conditions and folly. The form depends on the interim as medium—whether that liminality comes from associative leaps or else the physical turning of the page—at least at first. It is a trilogy or it is a triptych or it is a trinity whose conception interrupts autobiography and whose lessons in abstraction force out the anxiety of abstraction. Neither the system nor the promise of the system, but rather, the demand of found memories in her insistence: “You will remember” (a phrase, nb, which is immediately presented with a page break).

The entire format of They and We Will Get into Trouble for This is bewildering. The brackets cause a rift in the rhythm, which pleads for a different kind of immersion, one whose disruptive momentum is the line itself. The sensation of reading this feels akin to reading Descent of Alette by Alice Notley, whose phrasal nodes are contained in parentheses and whose narrative drama is synthesized by its range of apertures. We watch as Moschovakis moves around the courtyard of academia, translation, and technology. And then we are inside her sympathetic nervous system come section two, “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde.”

In a way, “What It Means to Be Avant-Garde” is a recapitulation on paradise; that is, the conceit and therefore the manufacturing of paradise. On the surface, it is a rawer exercise of space, and about this direction is a clinical assault, emotions so physical there is something of a blood-drawn loopiness to her process. She strikes the poet’s uncanny valley of sorrow when she begins so simply, “I feel sad.” There is nothing of the objective correlative, no rain to signify the streaks of melancholia. The subject–verb is an effortless mechanism and it concerns information. “The true thought seems to have no author,” says Clarice Lispector. We are in a room with threadbare furniture, a dying plant, imprints of where books once piled. It is ghostlike, the way Moschovakis lists the rules of her condition and checks yes or no, if she checks a box at all. We are left to imagine the medical document, cold and calculated, the questions plotted toward and away from key diagnoses.

In Christian sermons, a call and response occurs that binds listeners in unity. God is the tenor of any arrangement, a verbing and nouning appositive in the grammar of belief. It is in this same way that Moschovakis’s condition is also the conditional, a rhetorical shifting that informs the lyric tautology. What it means to be avant-garde might be the way in which the repetition of I announces its historicism and therefore its limits; it may be closer to what Simone Weil means when she writes, “A situation which is too hard degrades us through the following process: as a general rule the energy supplied by the higher emotions is limited. If the situation requires us to go beyond this limit we have to fall back on lower feelings (fear, covetousness, desire to beat the record, love of outward honours) which are richer in energy. This limitation is the key to many a retrogression.” (Weil and Lispector can construct an epigrammatic map of all our contemporary quandaries, as far as I’m concerned.) We can watch this movement in toto when Moschovakis writes the following, volleying past, present, and future situations by way of the dash:

I was in the park when they called—with my head on my knee and my

nose in a book—the book was by David Antin, an American

—there are many ways to follow a thought—when the

phone rang they told me they wanted me—there was a voice

on the phone that belonged to a man—it sounded like a man

and him saying they wanted me—I read a book the other

day by a circus performer—in my youth I read a book by an

anthropologist’s son—who ran off with the Gypsies with

his parents’ blessing—the anthropologist’s son was not an

American—the circus performer was unstable emotionally

—she committed suicide at the age of forty-two—the man

said we want you to come in for some tests—the parents

hoped the boy would grow up to write a book—in which

he’d detail the functioning of Romani culture—before the

phone rang I was reading the bit in the Antin—about how

it’s a good thing to be on the fringe—the boy learned the

Gypsies don’t lie to their own—coterie makes you soft—

when I went in for the tests they said I was normal—and

only after I did a lot of research on the Internet—did I come to

understand what they meant by that—was that my condition

is unexplained

Moschovakis wants us to explore divisions by way of compression. The choice of intervening punctuation like dashes and brackets allows the wrinkles in time to be their most effective and natural. The intertextual swarm ballasts the doctor’s call, a call that has an uncanny ability to put a great pin into time.

But this entire section relies on opposition and retraction in order to investigate its landscape. She will say soon after this passage, “I had forgotten the name of the anthropologist’s son” followed by “I had of course forgotten the book’s title as well.” The act of searching for the title of a book when you have only the vaguest idea of its “synopsis” brings on a series of inner interrogations. Have I looked this up before? Did I make this up? Am I even close to being correct about the characters, the events, the experience of reading? Moschovakis articulates this as a sort of fugue state as she continues to search-engine memory:

. . . around the

time I started searching I stopped dreaming anything fun—

Dutch Gypsy narrative young anthropologist did the trick

—his name came up and I remembered it—recognition

makes you fall but you can try to resist—though you’ll make

yourself ridiculous flapping all around—I switched windows

and searched for my unexplained condition—there are lots

of people who have it and none of them can spell—it turns

out I was wrong about my search being successful—the

name I thought I recognized was a different person—

. . . I typed son

of anthropologist adopted by Gypsies—when mysteries

are explained they don’t exactly disappear—the boy was

Belgian not Dutch and that had been my mistake—the man

called back to say one of my test results was compromised—

the title of the book is The Gypsies

More than anything, I am fascinated by the ways she does not distinguish the keywords of her search from the main drive of the text, its pressures and cages. There is something so singular about this experience, the way she braids the urgency of proximal memory to fact with the formation of her condition, which remains unsaid throughout the book. Her condition is always the distorted prism in the text, a kind of convex mirror in representation that acts as a light and foil.

Part of Moschovakis’s mastery is her ability to make us complicit to her circular sincerity/insincerity. She operates with her finger on the pulse of clarity as she demonstrates the ouroborus of her failures through clipped, ensnaring sentence work. This parataxis comes to a head in the final section, “Flat White (20/20),” because it is the part in which she executes her anxieties of translations by doing the work of translation. The format is closer to the first section, but now there is a dialectic at play and we are able to discern one utility of the brackets. The poems are numbered. When the numbers above the poems have no space between the brackets, that is the compromised translation with Samira Negrouche; when the numbers have spaces on either side of the number in the bracket, this is Moschovakis’s own hand, translating the neurotic room of her translation. So text behaves as a performance in two acts: one in which the secondary author is invisible, and the other in which the secondary author merges with the primary. All the while, the third thread sears along.

The most remarkable moment, perhaps in the whole book for me, is the mirroring of passages. This mirroring tremors with the trope of worry, that second permutation of trouble. Note the brackets.


I say that to write the most banal things you must first

write of your birth of your mother of our father of the

love of bodies of women of men of rapists and assassins

of incest and night sweats and of the hunger of the desert

of books of envy of suspicion of sex of ruins of the sea of

trees of archaeology of the Greek and Pagan gods and of

the stars i say all of this is almost banal before you write

and after.

{ 11 }

I say that to write the most banal things you must first

write of your [     ] of your [     ] of your [     ] of the

love of [     ] of [     ] of [     ] of [     ] and [     ]

of [     ] and [     ] [     ] and of the [     ] of the [     ]

of [     ] of [     ] of [     ] of [     ] of [     ] of the [     ] of

[     ] of [     ] of the [     ] and [     ] [     ] and of

the [     ] I say all of this is almost [

In part, Moschovakis achieves perfectly the anxiety of inexactness by claiming the dilemma of language. Her examinations are able to rent language of utility, to possess it anew in its luminous, fragmentary errors. To write the most banal things you must first write of your birth (“We do not rush toward death, we flee the catastrophe of birth, survivors struggling to forget it,” E. M. Cioran). Of course Moschovakis chooses to end the book on a note of anti-dialogue, the thread blaring the brackets of communicated falsity, unsuccessful decoding, dislodged rhetoric. The result of such a whirling, aphasic approximation is an extraordinarily satisfying fit. I felt the edges of her boundaries bleat out without retreat, endure without the need for conclusion. More than most other poetry collections, I felt I was reading the machinations (read: translations) of one’s thoughts from their primordial goo of pre-thought to their mortal examination of speaking. My state of attention flickered differently with each new reading, the cerebral vocabulary alerting me to a failure doctrine in keeping with the paradox of thought, having a writer’s mind at all. “And as is often the case,” writes Moschovakis near the end of this section,” I don’t know which sense to keep.”