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I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone

By Emily Warn

Somewhere in my notebooks are definitions for “adage” and “aphorism.” I wrote them down while reading a poem by Anna Moschovakis titled “Untitled.” When I re-read it, I open the dictionary again. This time I know what will happen. I’ll happily play word zigzag and then find myself in a word maze:


I can’t remember what it is I’m supposed to be doing.
I can’t think of anything but lists I’ve made, lists I’ve broken
the spirit of. It’s always a fine time for breaking
things, like plastic forks and poetic trends.
It’s a damn good morning to imitate the world.
But I can’t remember what imitation is
or the difference between it and flattery
or an adage and an aphorism.

The speaker is befuddled yet in on something humorous I want to discover. She can’t remember what she’s been told to do. All she can do is think, think of lists she’s “broken the spirit of.” Though lists could save her from distraction, the thought of breaking them further sidetracks her: how amusing it would be to also break “plastic forks and poetic trends.” Lists are the simplest way to organize words (a poet’s role), yet in this case the words in the list (the poem) keep it from doing its job.

Nonetheless, the speaker relishes the thought of imitating the world, of representing it in words–if only she could remember the meaning of “imitation.” Perhaps she can figure it out by understanding its difference from flattery? She tests this theory by wondering about the distinction between two similar words used to express truths. I reach for the dictionary. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, an “adage” is “a traditional maxim, a proverb of common experience,” and an “aphorism” is “any pithily expressed precept or observation; a maxim.” Since both words depend on the word “maxim” for their definition, one cannot ultimately assert their meaning, or difference from one another. The definition of maxim further derails any such attempt: a “maxim” is a “self-evident proposition assumed as a premise in mathematical or dialectical reasoning.”

Dialectical reasoning is not working. Contrasting differences does not produce a synthesis. The speaker persists in playing with the idea of difference, or “otherness.” As the poem continues, a man momentarily assumes the role of speaker: “I’d rather go back to school he said, performing a gesture to alterity.” How can one not laugh at this parody of literary theories of difference? Alterity becomes for her “just another way kicking” herself out the door. But she doesn’t quite get out the door. Instead she imagines becoming a man (the other), an agent and object of her desire: “I’d like to try being/a man for once. I’d like to wear chaps and have it/be obscene instead of pornographic.”

Oddly, it is just after this point in the poem that David Orr began his quotation from it–in his column in which he lambasted the Oprah Magazine poetry issue. He especially took umbrage at a feature in which women poets, including Moschovakis, modeled stylish spring clothing. He begins his quotation with: “I can never remember/what I think of pornography when it isn’t in my / face. I wish I could be inanimate…” These lines can be read as titillating if one has not read the first half of the poem. The excerpt is especially jarring because Orr uses it to guess at what Moschovakis was thinking during the fashion shoot.

Orr would have preferred that O show us, “Not what the people who write them [poems] are wearing. Just what reading one of them is like to one person.” I orignially planned to convey my experience of reading Moschovakis’ poem so as to break it out of the context of Orr’s column. But the poem doesn’t need rescuing through my or anyone else’s interpretation. The speaker in the poem, like the book’s title, seems to celebrate her predicament: I HAVE NOT BEEN ABLE TO GET THROUGH TO EVERYONE. (It’s hard not to chuckle at the unintended irony of the title. By appearing in O and having her poem quoted in The New York Times, Moschovakis reached an audience about as large as possible for a poet.)

Many contemporary poems, like this one, resist any interpretation. What sets this and many other poems by Moschovakis apart from them is their trickery. Her casual tone and humor lure us into reading, and before too long, we are thinking through that which we can never finish thinking through—how to make meaning, how to live an ethical life, how to make a poem, etc. Near the end of the poem, she writes “I don’t think English is very good / for a certain kind of inventioning.”

Here is the poem in its entirety:

I can’t remember what is I’m supposed to be doing.
I can’t think of anything but lists I’ve made, lists I’ve broken
the spirit of. It’s always a fine time for breaking
things, like plastic forks and poetic trends.
It’s a damn good morning to imitate the world.
But I can’t remember what imitation is
or the difference between it and flattery
or an adage and an aphorism.
I better go back to school
he said, performing a gesture to alterity.
I can’t remember if alterity
has negative connotations
or is just another way of kicking
myself out the door. I’d like to try being
a man for once. I’d like to wear chaps and have it
be obscene instead of pornographic. I can never remember
what I think of pornography when it isn’t in my
face. I wish I could be inanimate,
banged-up and appreciated
for all my surface qualities
without ethics getting in the way. I seem to remember
being ethical. I seem to act along some kind of line
albeit a kinky one. I wonder when kinky became
pornographic and whether that aspect is
subtractable. I don’t remember my grammar
rules. I don’t think English is very good
for a certain kind of inventioning. I gather
some reads don’t like being
confronted with the language in every word.
I want to be a word. I would be abstract
with an inscrutable ending.

Anna Moschovakis, from I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone, Turtle Point Press (New York)
Copyright © 2006 by Anna Moschovakis.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, April 30th, 2011 by Emily Warn.