You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake

by Anna Moschovakis
Coffee House Press 2011
Reviewed by Rachel Mennies

“HUMAN MACHINE:”

The Internet feels different after I finish reading You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake. Throughout the collection, Anna Moschovakis mines the Internet’s various engines and portals—Craigslist, Wikipedia, MySpace—for subject matter, reflecting back to us, her readers and the Internet’s reliable users, the complicated and troublesome material it holds. We move quickly and boldly from nature to cyberspace.

In the collection’s first half, Moschovakis shows us a world both hunting and hunted, using anaphora to craft scenes of human struggle against industry and scenarios testing our moral resolves. Variations on the title reappear throughout, crafting repeatedly the beginning of a narrative that doesn’t always end or neatly conclude. Later sections find us in front of the computer while Moschovakis makes a biting cultural study of our technological habits. It was after reading these disorienting and lyric sections straight through that I could sense my online self growing skeptical, even wary, of my usual e-landscape. This is Moschovakis’s strongest work in You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake: a forced, and imperative, reconsideration of the world we inhabit and mindlessly exploit.

“Everybody should have a position on everything,” asserts the speaker in the collection’s prologue poem. “We take our positions with us, like folding stools to the beach.” The long poem that follows, “The Tragedy of Waste,” shapes positions as tight, enclosed scenes, using iterations and variations of the book’s title clause to set the stage:

You are approaching a lake. You have canoes, tent, axes.

The heroine says: We shall first try to secure
an aeroplane view of our own

This taxes the imagination. Too many studies have begun
and ended in the middle.

* * *

You and others, approaching

We shall be asked for a way out

               to be fed

               to keep warm and dry

Here, the tragedy isn’t what little we’re given to survive, but the socio-cultural mess made in our attempts to do so. Moschovakis alludes to: Germany, 1917, modern industrialism, Western overconsumption, war and genocide. As explorer of the twentieth-century, she suggests, the Western world has created its own demise, a lifestyle where “ten men could live on the corn / where only one can live on the beef,” and we’re accusable and accountable for the configuration of this way of life. “You have your axes // What, precisely, is your procedure?” Moschovakis asks us at the poem’s end.

In the collection’s next long poem, “Death as a Way of Life,” we look more closely at the animal and human costs of this world—what it takes, both literally and figuratively, to produce the beef we require to survive. “In 1755,” the speaker tells us, “Louis XV / assembled 13 hunters / for an 18-day excursion.” We’re confronted next with their list of kills, an astronomical body count of wild animals:

19 stags
18,243 hares
10 foxes
19,545 partridges…
for a total 48,237 killed

This spectacle of consumption, as much about the pleasure of the hunt as it is for sustenance, receives its condemnation in later sections of the collection, as we visit briefly the names and ideas of twentienth-century philosophers known for their commentary on animal rights and the ethics of animal slaughter. “Then there is that Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lévinas / who wrote about violence,” notes the speaker of “Death as a Way of Life,” who later references philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer. Singer’s name, books and philosophy appear in the background of portions of You and Three Others Are Approaching A Lake, offering a sort of compass through this corrupt, made world. “Anna is not on MySpace,” we learn later in the collection. “But she has read Peter Singer. Reading Peter Singer causes a creeping fire to burn its way up her center.”

“Annabot,” who led most directly to my own disorientation, speaks to us in the collection’s third poem, “The Human Machine.” In this and “In Search of Wealth,” the book’s fourth and final poem, e-found phrases and images push against their ethical use and purposeful cultural misuse by e-citizens. We’re taken through the landscape by Annabot, a sort of doppelganger for the author who takes us through the landscape by way of a “pop-up”-echoing, playful structure which aids in Moschovakis’s conjuring of the online realm). In the fourth of thirty “chances,” or small poems-within-the-poem, we learn that Annabot “is a chatbot designed to pass / the Turing Test. This is the language // of simple, obvious things.” Throughout this portion of the collection, Annabot interfaces with the Human Machine; the forces often confront one another, revealing Annabot’s struggle to process and render sincere emotional reactions in the medium to which she’s confined:

ANNABOT: But I am not cheerful.
HUMAN MACHINE: I ought to reflect, again and again, and yet again, that all others deserve from me as much sympathy as I give to myself. I place my hand over your heart.
ANNABOT: I cannot feel your hand.
HUMAN MACHINE: I cannot feel your heart.

We learn the consequences of this difficult human synthesis in “In Search of Wealth,” which uses the Internet as a found medium for sections of the poem. Here, we find excerpts from Craigslist: people looking for retail work or rough sex. We read of Scientology in a factual list, presumably culled from the organization’s own website. Our brain cache—like, one can assume, our Internet cache—fills to the brim with clutter and danger, periphery and violence. And yet: we still live in this world, even grow it: “But still we type,” asserts the speaker in the collection’s epilogue, “one letter at a time.”

Culpability shadows You and Three Others Are Approaching A Lake: the culpability of early Western industrialists, whose greed led to the depletion and ruin of our natural world; the culpability of those who prefer violence to rhetoric (“can a grammar kill?” asks a quoted poet in “Death as a Way of Life”); and the culpability of those “person-bots,” perhaps all of us, who choose to exist online over existing humanly. As Annabot, Moschovakis shows us provocatively what our online lives have the risk of doing to our psyches by placing them in an important historical narrative—that of past moments where cheap indulgence (meat over corn, hunting over cultivating, Craigslist sex over human connection) leads to an erosion of our very moral centers. Our anti-bots, our human selves.

And what of these human selves? Individual and complex, non-programmable, we have the most to lose by plugging in too far. “Dear Reader,” the book ends: “your documentary is prize winning.”

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