The James Laughlin Award is given by the Academy of American Poets to recognize and support a rather unusual (and unique) achievement — a poet’s second book of poetry. For 2011, the Laughlin Award was given to Anna Moschovakis for You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake.
I’ve never read a book of poetry quite like it.
The title suggests a story or a riddle, implying that something is going to happen or unfold, or a challenge or competition is going to begin. Or perhaps a choice is going to be offered. All of these things, or something like them, does indeed happen, as Moschovakis explores technology and technological culture.
And she does that in a kind of story format, using poetry, prose, prose poetry, and even lists to consider technology culture and the place of humans within it, or even if humans have a place.
The poems are divided into six parts — a one-page prologue, a two-page epilogue, and four sections (reminiscent in their own way of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.) The sections have intriguing titles, each a part of the story and each pulling the read forward: “The Tragedy of Waste, ” “Death as a Way of Life, ” “The Human Machine, ” and “In Search of Wealth.” Each of these sections reads like an extended poem. Here’s a portion from “Death as a Way of Life, which asks questions about language and poetry in the context of technological culture:”
that the worship of science,
logic, art, law, political theory,
fresh fruit, philosophy, conversation,
Yosemite National Park, a woman’s right
To stick to her plan, olives, justice, and
can’t kill a church
What can grammar kill?
What can a poem kill?
From there, Moschovakis moves to a combined prose/poetic discussion of Bonnie and Clyde, two people who knew about killing and death. Later on, another character, “Anna” (for the author? will change to Annabot, who undertakes a conversation with the “Human Machine, ” a conversation depicted through a partial playwright script, letters and poems.
As I said, I’ve never read a book of poetry like this one.
You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake is thought-provoking and unsettling, doing what poetry can often do more effectively than other literary forms — challenge your assumptions by forcing you to consider the familiar in a very unfamiliar way.
It deserved the award. I’m still pondering the question, what can a poem kill?
Post by Glynn Young, author of Dancing Priest: A Novel
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