‘We’ the people

Collective lyric self in twenty-first-century poetry

“Either as poets or as readers, we now realize we are entangled, even when we don’t know what do to with this realization, nor what to call it.” Photo of red bryony tendrils intertwined by hedera.baltica via Wikimedia Commons.

1. First-person otherness

Running the risk of asking the most naïve-sounding question in lyric poetry, what do we make of a contemporary poem in English written in the first person? Whether the first person is singular or plural, how does that choice impact our relationship with the speaker in the poem? And has that relationship changed in the twenty-first century, or is it dictated by our inheritance of modernist ideas and the way they have framed our understanding of the lyric self?

The lyric self is certainly one of the hallmarks of lyric poetry as a genre. The construction of that genre, as Virginia Jackson exposed in her theory of lyric reading, has involved the removal of poems from their originating circumstances and transposition into a timeless/placeless vacuum, in order to render the illusion of immediacy between poet and reader.[1] That illusion is so pervasive that, in an influential textbook, Helen Vendler defines lyric as “the genre of private life” (“what we say to ourselves when we are alone”) and lyric poem as “a script for performance by its reader.”[2] So, not only the immediate social circumstances of the poem are abstracted but the very lyric self is presented as something transparent that allows for identification — “a twinship between writer and reader” as Vendler puts it.[3] This abstraction of the lyric self has consequences for the way “lyric poetry” became unmarked and often opposed to “political poetry,” especially poetry that makes the lyric self not transparent, but opaque, fluid, or entangled in ways that challenge the positionality of both speakers and readers.[4]

We, twenty-first-century poetry readers, are careful not to equate speaker with poet. Even in the most seemingly confessional poems, we recognize a “performance of intimacy”[5] — to borrow words from writer Maggie Nelson, who coined that phrase while studying the poetry of Anne Sexton, of whom Nelson writes: “the singular self which she supposedly ‘confesses’ splinters into polyphonic voices positioned on all sides of her subject matter.”[6] The recognition of the lyric self as a performance is, of course, not a criticism but an awareness of limitation, of complexity, of — to quote Nelson again, here writing about Sylvia Plath — the “complex figuration of the relation between first-person identity and textual self-representation.”[7]

We inherit this awareness of complexity from early modernism. When poet Fernando Pessoa wrote “Eu sou uma anthologia” (I am an anthology),[8] he encapsulated the fragmentation of the lyric self — representing the shattering of the ego — that marked modernism.[9] Pessoa took this pulverization perhaps further than any other modernist by inventing one-hundred-plus fictional authors, including his three famous heteronyms, and turning his own name into only one (and not the most important person) in his imaginary coterie. This poetic process of self-estrangement or self-erasure did not start with Pessoa; if he was ahead of his time, he was also finely attuned to the aesthetic changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so much so that Pessoa built on them to spearhead modernism in Portugal. He was aware of the importance of Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes”[10] and of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre”[11] — a revolutionary “deconstruction of the first person singular” as critic George Steiner explains:

‘I is an/other’ […]. The ego is no longer itself. More precisely, it is no longer itself to itself, it is no longer available to integration. […] Rimbaud’s decomposition introduces into the broken vessel of the ego not only the ‘other,’ the counter-persona of Gnostic and Manichean dualism, but a limitless plurality. […] Rimbaud posits at the now vacant heart of consciousness the splintered images of other and momentary ‘selves.’[12]

Today, Pessoa’s work seems more influential than ever, with new translations, editions, and special issues appearing at an exponential rhythm. His self-estrangement has formed poetic lineages. The multiplicity of the lyric self he performed has gained in meaning; it is echoed in nonbinary poetics such as that of Paige Lewis, who — diverging here from Pessoa — does not feel the need to diminish their own name to allow for plurality, their Self wide enough to include various and even contradictory selves.[13] In any case, the plurality of Pessoa’s self is more they than we — more otherness than collectiveness. Therefore, even the most extreme case of a plural first-person lyric self — that of Pessoa — does not necessarily mean a collective lyric self. Perhaps we may differentiate Pessoa’s plural first person from first person plural; but then, just the use of we would not guarantee true collectiveness either, as it could just be a royal we, or even an exclusionary colonial we.

2. First-person collectiveness

How to define something as unmarked as the colonial we, a self-serving congregation that tends to speak through its very silence? And how to recognize that we in a colonial language such as English, so accustomed to not hearing itself because it tends to only hear itself? This assumed difficulty is connected to what Stó:lō scholar Dylan Robinson calls the “tin ear” of settler colonialism.[14] Perhaps the colonial we is better sensed when frayed, stretched too thin to contain all it has othered. To cite an example from a different colonial language, Burkinabé historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo reports that French colonists used to teach African children, “nos ancêtres les Gaulois” (our ancestors the Gauls)[15] — attempting to assimilate students into that colonial we.

Questions of accessibility and positionality permeate twenty-first-century poetics — and seem to come to a head around the intentional inclusion/exclusion of the reader in the speaker’s lyric pronoun of choice, especially when the pronoun in question is we. In their essay “Teaching Poetry in the Palestinian Apocalypse,” subtitled “Towards a collective, lyric ‘I,’” poet George Abraham meditates on some of the ways in which a plural first person appears in contemporary poetry, distinguishing between a colonial exclusionary we and what would be a truly collective one:

So maybe, with a multitudinous “I,” I advocate not for the (universal) lyric “we” but a lyric “we” — one that is fluid and unknowably expansive, though precise, and always beyond my (and my (and my(and all my my’s’))) reach. A lyric-we I dare to call impossible if only to imply that we are always doing the work of (re(dis))becoming. The essence of this lyric-we would be solidarity — to show up in language and off the page. A poetics not just of theoretical insurgence, but that demands the poet, the readers, and all listeners enact the poem with our lives.[16]

This solidarity both on and off the page echoes the way Judith Butler has read the phrase “we the people”: “whether it is written in a text or uttered on the street, it designates an assembly in the act of designating and forming itself.”[17] This is surely different from the intended solidity and pretended invisibility of the colonial we. “We the people” is a constitutional but also constitutive speech act, as much citational product as ever-evolving process, an indexical statement that is both linguistic and corporeal; and it matters who says it, because the bodies claiming it are visible and thereby vulnerable — not abstract, but inseparable from their “we” pronoun:

When someone tries to mobilize “we, the people,” we look over to see who says it, whether they have a right to say it, but whether, in saying it, their speech act will be effective, gathering forth the people in the very saying.[18]

Butler’s reading of embodied assemblies may help us consider the lyric we in contemporary poetry — perhaps even as a tentative rubric: we may read (1) who says “we,” (2) how the speakers implicate their positionalities in saying it, as well as (3) their effectiveness in implicating or mobilizing readers. Reverberating with Butler, poet Tracy K. Smith has asked, “what becomes of the lyric ‘I’ if poems are not so much reflecting as enacting?” Smith suggests that

lately it [the lyric self] seems concerned with seeking revelation not in privacy, but in community. Not in the meditative mind but in bustling bodies in shared space, in the transactions our physical selves are marked and marred by. The lyric “I” at this very moment is not alone […]. Rather, it is speaking to a large, shifting, contradictory, multivalent body that is not guaranteed to hear or even to agree.[19]

Taking George Abraham up on their challenge of rethinking lyric poetry through solidarity, I propose to study three conceptions of a lyrical we that seem fluid, complex, and distinct from the fragmented plurality of the modernist self: 1) Nathaniel Mackey’s serial we in the “Song of the Andoumboulou”; 2) Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s we of summoned voices; and 3) Solmaz Sharif’s we that is implicated in the layered relationships between speaker and a very specific you. This investigation of three different incarnations of the lyric we is not — nor could be — exhaustive; neither does it pretend to generate a typology, but solely to highlight several approaches to a collective self.[20] In this too, the lyric we seems to mirror the power of assembly, for both are inexhaustible; just as any election or manifestation cannot deplete the power of the people,[21]  any typology of lyric we’s would not and should not be exhaustive — as poetry remains endlessly generative. Also like an assembly proclaiming “we the people,” this solidary we cannot be neutral, nor does it pretend to be — its visibility and vulnerability challenge the supposed transparency and neutrality of lyric poetry.

3. Serial we

In the “Song of the Andoumboulou” that traverses Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem, the “of” is ambiguous, both about and by, referring to a theme or a persona. Reading “of the Andoumboulou” as a statement of theme, we encounter a very particular serial poem about the Andoumboulou: a series of jazzlike variations of a tune that define/redefine “Andoumboulou” without a conclusion or point of arrival; none of the songs, or iterations of the same Song, ever claims to have the final word about the theme, nor any hierarchy over the series as a whole. If we read “of the Andoumboulou” as the affirmation of a collective persona — as in sung by the Andoumboulou — we find a speaker that is included in or stands for a lyrical we; thus, the serial redefinitions of the singing voice are also an investigation of a collective self.

If the title “Song of the Andoumboulou” attributes a song to a people, whether we think of the “of” as indicative of belonging or an investigation, seriality complicates that relationship. Is/Are the “Andoumboulou” the same through time and space and from poem to poem? Even at the sound level, Andoumboulou seems to be an errant sign, resembling some Western etymological roots for walking (Latin ambulare, Italian andare).

Not only is the Andoumboulou an ambiguous “subject” (subject-speaker and subject-theme), but its endless self-definition makes it hard to talk about. How does one go about discussing a poem that refuses closure, when we end up with more questions than answers? Is it altogether possible to arrive at a definition when a poem does not? Or is the very process of trying to define it again and again the only possible (open) “definition,” for both poet and reader?

The “Song of the Andoumboulou” itself is keenly aware of this problem; “Song and Cerement” (the fifty-ninth installment of the serial Song), expresses the slipperiness of a fluid first-person plural trying to define itself through constant movement, turning, an “interminable skid”:

      [...] It was all

     a wrong

    turn or we took a wrong turn. All the

 roads ran off to the side and we as

well, we of the interminable skid … We

   were they of the imagined exit[22]


“Andoumboulou” (or Andumbulu) is a word the Dogon people of Mali use to designate a mythic/spiritual entity connected to the underworld. Mackey employs it to name a plural speaker, a poetic demonym, a collective identity always on the move in external and internal space. Externally: landscapes shift from poem to poem, evoking the multilayered displacement of the Middle Passage. Internally: the we is reconfigured in spiraled redefinitions that conjure up the loss of identity of an enslaved people and its endless rebuilding after/through the colonial project — the loss of identity of having gone through “the door of no return.”[23] Naming a monument erected in Senegal’s Gorée Island in 1962, Dionne Brand reminds us this “door is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. […] The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World.”[24] In A Map to the Door of No Return, Brand’s prose circles the symbolic power of that monument with an ever-tentative map, much like Mackey’s poetry:

The door exists as an absence. A thing in fact which we do not know about, a place we do not know. Yet it exists as the ground we walk. Every gesture our bodies make somehow gestures toward this door. What interests me primarily is probing the Door of No Return as consciousness. The door casts a haunting spell on personal and collective consciousness in the Diaspora.[25]

Mackey’s aforementioned line “they of the imagined exit” evokes a forced displacement we can only imagine, and cannot imagine well enough — words failing to convey it due to the monstrous absences of the archive, insufficiencies of language, and limitations of memory. While defending the method of critical fabulation to approach such unspeakable gaps in our historical imagination, Saidiya Hartman describes it as “listening to the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives — and intent on achieving an impossible goal”[26] — words that seem applicable to the always-in-progress definition of Mackey’s we:

[...] The sun was one of

   us it said. What it meant by us lay


in peal, ping, fado, world wanted only

for the sound it shook loose, Portuguese


trill… What wasn’t us we had no way of

    knowing. What it meant by us was

 unclear, us included so much[27]


The sun is included in the “us” here, but “us included so much” that “what is meant by us” eludes any definition. When, in another passage, Mackey writes, “not limbo where we were, a kind of / loop we were in … It wasn’t lost we’d / have said we were, we reconnoitered,”[28] who is meant by we and what is meant by its movement? If the “limbo” is denied (so the self is not stuck), a “loop” is affirmed, in jazz circularity, an incessant process of becoming (but becoming what?). This is a fluid self, but how stable/porous, personal/collective is it? Or is the speaker a vessel, defined only by the passages through itself — an Orisha singing through a human voice?[29]

In his preface to Splay Anthem, Mackey presents “the poem’s we” as “a lost tribe of sorts, a band of nervous travelers, [that] know nothing if not locality’s discontent, ground gone under.”[30] This we seems to identify, primarily, survivors of the Middle Passage and their descendants. But when, on the next page, the Andoumboulou are represented “as not simply a failed, or flawed, earlier form of human being but a rough draft of human being, the work-in-progress we continue to be,”[31] is now the we perhaps more (or all-) inclusive?

The binary inclusion/exclusion seems to play a crucial role in driving the Andoumboulou’s errancy, being sometimes explicitly addressed: “A republic of none the one included / us / no word to speak it with.”[32] Invoking a plural voice historically marked by exclusion and refusing its assimilation into one stable/final word, Mackey creates a collective Canto that is very different from the modernist selves of Pessoa or Whitman. Instead of a “Song of Myself,” perhaps Mackey would call it “Song of Ourselves,” from “our” Selves, about “our” Selves, of always becoming “our” Selves … the search for collective self-definition being the very purpose of the Song. If this is any conclusion, it is not altogether different from what other readers saw in installments of the “Song of the Andoumboulou” that preceded Splay Anthem: “efforts to reassemble the collective through ensemble practices”;[33] “the possibility of a collective cross-cultural identity that would […] move beyond the logics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ so often underlying current conceptions of literary as well as social multiculturalism.”[34]

4. Spilling we

What if, instead of defining and redefining a moving we, a poet summoned she after she until the accretion of anonymous and neglected voices became an unavoidable collective? Intimately connected, and complementary to Mackey’s monumental endeavor, is Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, a book that equally defies definitions — for a spill is already something that breaches enclosure. Not only does the book sprawl as a procession of voices summoned, but the syntax also spills. It is a syntax of continuity, in which things become unexpectedly transitive, sentences taken to their limit and then beyond:

no one took a photograph but I see her. one foot on a lower step, one still on the porch. looking behind her, hands gripping the newest definition of what her hands could carry. her elbow points towards the still where moonshine and her man will drown their disbelief later in a proof so strong you’d think it would be clean.[35]

The first sentence above suggests the missing archive that Gumbs is trying to make visible, the invisibility itself made seen, heard, felt.[36] The voices in Spill weigh trauma: sometimes too heavy a burden, other times not heavy enough to make one stay; they conjure invisibility spells that transform weakness into power, drawing strength from systemic neglect. The excerpt comes from the third of ten sections, titled “How She Left”; almost all section titles resemble journalistic questions and, in the table of contents,[37] form a kind of poem shaped like a spill:

TOC in arc shape, reading: A NOTE / xi, How She Knew /1, How She Spelled It / 17, How She Left / 31, How She Survived until Then / 45, What She Did Not Say / 61, What He Was Thinking / 75, Where She Ended Up / 91, The Witnesses the Wayward the Waiting / 111, How We Know / 125, The Way / 141, ACKNOWLEDGMENTS / 151, NOTES / 153, BIBLIOGRAPHY / 161

Moreover, each section begins with a different dictionary definition of the word “spill.” From the dedication, the book presents itself like a summoning. The dedication directly invokes a mentor to create a work both “after and with / Black White and In Color / by Hortense Spillers”[38] — with Spillers, much like Mackey’s Andoumboulou, taking on the meaning of a group name, a demonym, a lineage, the job/origin of ones who spill. In fact, every poem in Spill starts from a line or a phrase written by Hortense Spillers and goes from there (with every source given at the end of the book). Spillers is but the first one summoned into the collective we Gumbs creates, first grounding Spill in a feminist lineage, then opening poetry to a myriad of voices of Black women. The first poem is an ever-incomplete roll-call, an incantation, a Biblical naming of the unnamed — except it is not done by Adam:

the ground shakes with us
the gathering women [...]
the graceful stomping women heading home
ungrateful women populating poems [...]
the fire is full of the all-out women
the walk-out women the sweet
the fire is finding the love-lost women
the worth-it women the ones
fire is blazing the brash blues women
the black-eyed women
the wiry women with guns
the fire is becoming the sun

our work here is not done[39]

At some point, Gumbs invokes Eshu (or Exu), the Orisha of crossroads[40] — among other Orishas — creating a spill between worlds “when she lets god through.”[41]

The general movement of the book becomes clearer as it grows like a rhizome: unnamed women are given voice, accumulating scenes/stories of she after she into a sprawling we. There’s an endless spring, a deep source of neglected conscience, a water logic — with tremendous washing power: “I will softly explain that years are not measured by light they are measured by water.”[42] There is the spill of change, riot, structural revolution:

Picture the house. The house is spilling. There are hands out the window but the doors have barricades. Picture the hands. The hands are crucial. The hands are eloquent they are spelling back their hair. Picture the hair. The hair is heaping. The hair is helping. The hair will overtake. Picture the help. The help are horrified. Their children are learning to dismantle the state.[43]

By juxtaposing Spill with the “Song of the Andoumboulou,” we discern multiple points of connection: both form collectives via a process of seriality, accumulating poems into a we that overflows from an overwhelming silence; both harken back to Hartman’s critical fabulation with their daunting leaps of imagining the unimaginable, the lost, the left unburied in the ocean of collective memory; both attempt the impossible and perform that very impossibility at a conceptual level, by “enacting the impossibility,” as Hartman puts it, and asking “how does one tell impossible stories [...] that failed to be recorded in the archive”?[44] Hartman observes that “[t]he outcome of this method is a ‘recombinant narrative,’ which ‘loops the strands’ of incommensurate accounts and which weaves present, past, and future.”[45]

The recombinant works of Mackey and Gumbs exhibit the limits of the archive through repetition and rearrangement of a purposefully limited vocabulary. Because of that, the voices may sound familiar, but the focus on them seems strange, dislocated, recombined in ever-surprising ways — perhaps because these voices, so often dehumanized and devalued as non-poetical, are now exposing the very limits of our imagination, destabilizing the canon with everyday words. They point to the nonneutrality of the canonical we (almost indistinguishable from the colonial we), showing how much any canon fails to acknowledge, how much there is to say and to hear, how much we cannot voice because we cannot imagine: “she has no one to describe it to. she would say wave crash but she has not seen the ocean. would say lightning, would say wait and come back, i’ll show you.”[46] Collapsing temporalities through spiraling tellings and retellings, both Mackey and Gumbs create work that is both extemporaneous and contemporary, mythical and quotidian, dramatizing a we that, fluid as water, persists and transgresses.

5. Reaching us

Multiple critics have paid close attention to Solmaz Sharif’s effort in Look to rehumanize a language that has become increasingly militarized, “[s]anitized and detached from the brutal reality it inscribes,” as Taleghani puts it.[47] Surely, our daily language has long included all sorts of normalized violent metaphors, such as defend a thesis, tackle a point, and many other examples of the “ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor” that Lakoff and Johnson deconstruct in Metaphors We Live By — “expressions from the vocabulary of war, e.g., attack a position, indefensible, strategy, new line of attack, win, gain ground, etc.”[48] Sharif’s Look takes issue, specifically, with the euphemisms and incorporeal language in the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, published by the US Department of Defense (DOD): “It is precisely this effort to detach, dehumanize and erase the injury and harm perpetrated against human bodies in war that Solmaz Sharif challenges and confronts with her poetry.”[49]

Similarly to Taleghani, Anderson describes Sharif’s work as “interrogating the disfiguration of the word within an increasingly militarised world,” underscoring how the poet (in the endnotes of Look) points to “the disappearance of ‘drone’ from an updated version of the Dictionary”[50]; that means, in Sharif’s own words, that “the military definition is no longer a supplement to the English language, but the English language itself.”[51] Everyday words (such as the term for male bee) are, thus, co-opted by military lingo to mean something else that obfuscates lethal implications; but the process does not stop there, for the terms are then absorbed back from the military world into daily language, dislodging connotations (perhaps even denotation in the case of drone). But, who uses words without questioning their purpose, the purpose the poet unveils? The answer is the same as to the question of who funds the military: people, taxpayers, speakers. In that way, Look implicates the reader in a complicated we. When we excuse ourselves from having unquestioningly repeated drone to mean humanless killing flying machine, are we different from the soldiers safely operating it from a distance?

We cannot simply blame the DOD Dictionary for militarizing words without looking at who is using the language and how. The way Sharif looks is powerful; Raza Kolb sees it as “returning the language of the war on terror to the intimate scenes it necessarily infiltrates.”[52] Two serial poems in Look — “Reaching Guantánamo” and “PERSONAL EFFECTS” — perform that intimacy and implicate the reader in ways that seem different (or more complex) than in the loose poems primarily focused on reappropriating militarized terms.

In “Reaching Guantánamo,” Sharif writes a series of seven short letters that, at first sight, seem to have been censored, for we encounter as many scattered words as “missing” spaces in them. Interestingly, those blank spaces are not the black-box redactions one associates with top-secret documents only made public after governmental censorship; nor does there seem to be any information here that would merit such censorship, for these are intimate letters written from the persona of a wife to a husband named Salim. Given the title, we assume Salim is imprisoned in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, in the context of the US war on terror that followed the 9/11 attacks. The portions of the letter that are not blank seem to be what was able to reach Guantánamo after some process of erasure: Raza Kolb notes how “Reaching” in the title “speaks to a hopeful gesture, an attempt to touch, a hand held out, and also to the impossibility of literary arrival under conditions of extreme surveillance, abuse, and isolation.”[53]

The surnameless Salim codes the addressee as Muslim, suggesting a collective and standing for any potential target of the biased views of the war on terror. Yet, this Salim is based on a real individual, as Anderson explains: “Sharif imagines writing to the former Guantánamo prisoner Salim Hamdam from the perspective of his wife, making this act of erasure particularly unsettling as it has been enacted on a text that has no obvious relation to violence or insurrection; it is, as Andrea Brady points out, a ‘mutation of intimacy.’”[54] The fifth and shortest of these letters — proportionally the one with the vastest empty space — reads:

Dear Salim,

   have made a nest

under our                          . And now

the nestlings always                                       .

The                     of eggs has gone         .

And rice. And tea. I don’t know who

decides                             things.[55]


As Raza Kolb also notes, “[t]he reader cannot help but fill in the gaps, suggest words in order to bring sense to the letter.”[56] Thus, we pour ourselves into the first blanks we encounter: (1) perhaps some birds “have made a nest”? (2) “under our” windowsill maybe? But we soon are stumped, unable to narrow down all the options overflowing that silence: (3) “the nestlings always” what? (4) and (5) “The” what “of eggs has gone” what? The last blank, in its matter-of-fact tone, conveys a particularly heartbreaking fragility: (6) “I don’t know who / decides [         ] things,” with the blank functioning like an impossible, unaddressable pronoun, for the wife does not know who decides what whom to complain to in the echelons of prison bureaucracy, who is ultimately responsible for the imprisonment of her husband — and the resulting silence conveys the pathos of that helplessness better than any visible word.

The fragility of the situation is amplified by the observed nest, a house outside the house, which doubles the home setting from which the wife writes. Also, something “of eggs has gone” (gone bad? robbed? lost?); i.e., something seems to be missing, with sad/tragic possibilities that further reverberate with the husband’s equally unfathomable absence from their home.

Raza Kolb reads “Sharif’s choice of blankness in place of the obscuring mark” as something that “reorients our relationship to the referent” and “[i]n contrast to the aesthetics of secrecy and withholding, […] suggests there may be no inside-text, no truth to be unveiled, no subject to bring to light.”[57] Sharif herself echoes that reading in an interview:

whatever is blank for you is blank for me. I wrote with those gaps. For me, that was important because I wasn’t trying to replicate the violence that was being committed by the Joint Task Force. I was trying to grieve it, actually. And to exist alongside the reader in that absence, and in that not knowing.[58]

“Not knowing” unites poet and reader, creating a complex we that intercepts and attempts to read the broken letters from a wife to her imprisoned husband. This we may at first seem outside the power dynamics that resulted in the letters being broken (after all, there must be a they that know what happened to the missing words); but, once we start questioning why, all possible answers seem to implicate us readers of the very letter, we interceptors of intimate messages full of holes, we taxpayers who ultimately fund the apparatus responsible for the erasures of intimacy, both of the letter and of the separated couple.

Raza Kolb draws attention to the fact that “the final letter in the poem’s series is unsigned — without the ‘Yours,’ of the preceding letters — as if written by some omniscient being, or a mass collectivity, or by no one.”[59] Are we inside of that collectivity? What can we do if we recognize ourselves as being inside? And what should we do if we think we are outside? If marginalized by state powers in one way or another, we may find ourselves inside and immediately sympathize with the couple in their broken correspondence. If relatively privileged, we may find ourselves outside, less vulnerable to the censoring logic of the state, but now acutely aware of our own fortune. Either way, this interactive poem does not let us off the hook, because trying to complete the incompletable blanks leads to questioning why they exist in the first place, and who is responsible for language and war — with all speakers and taxpayers implicated. If the poem initially makes a reader deeply aware of their inside/outside positionality, it soon blurs all sides, because there is no “inside-text” as Raza Kolb argues, and no neutral outside beyond responsibility. Perhaps this is the lyric solidarity George Abraham proposed, or the new form of political poem Tracy K. Smith noted — a lyric poetry that points less to divisions and more to entanglement.

6. Collective effects

If, in “Reaching Guantánamo” the persona-wife and addressee-Salim weave a we that implicates the reader, the thirty-one-page “PERSONAL EFFECTS” complicates that implication, due to the proximity between speaker and poet; now, a speaker/autofictional poet interrogates a series of photographs featuring a real family member who died in war. Anderson introduces “PERSONAL EFFECTS” this way: “Musing upon her Iranian heritage, Sharif probes the memories of her late uncle who fought for Iran, drawing upon photographs and conversations with her diasporic family members to produce what she calls a ‘ramshackle, beach-combed altar of language debris I hoped would bring me closer to [my uncle].’”[60]

That “language debris” is manifest through the different configurations of the poem, “[m]ixing prose, verse and linguistic registers,”[61] and appearing in a different position on almost every page. The poem matches and stands for the smattering of loose photos being described by the poet, adding layers to the meaning of “PERSONAL EFFECTS,” which is included in the DOD Dictionary as another military euphemism (as well as twenty-two other small-caps terms in the poem). The phrase “PERSONAL EFFECTS” veils the meaning of a dead soldier whose remaining possessions are sent to the surviving family as disjecta membra, souvenir, memento mori. As a “lyrical and moving elegy to her uncle, who is referred to in the poem affectionately as ‘Amoo’ and who was killed in the Iran-Iraq War,” Taleghani notes that these “personal effects [...] are not merely the remaining private property of a deceased individual, but the effects and consequences felt by the individual, the family, and the community of those killed in war, all wars”[62] — emotional (personal) consequences (effects) we see unfolding through the eyes of the poet.

Reading the photographs that once belonged to Amoo, the speaker-poet occupies a similar position that we, as readers, occupied facing the “Reaching Guantánamo” letters, which precede “PERSONAL EFFECTS” in Look. The speaker-poet is the one now trying to guess the blanks, only to perform the ultimate impossibility of such a project:

What I see are your hands
peeling apples, the skin curling
to the floor in one long unravel,

a spit-up film reel
loosened from its canister, and
I’m not even sure they are apples, quince[63]

The photographic description soon gives way to unanswerable questions, unbridgeable silences like the ones in “Reaching Guantánamo” — with the reader following the poet’s interrogative mode, marked by transparent hesitations and confessed assumptions: “I assume you are feeding // the other men in your tent”; “Maybe the cameraman // asked you to look at him / and you couldn’t stomach / it.”[64] With so many unknowns, the speaker has to choose how to feel in order to move on (with the narrative, with grief, with not knowing):

I decide you are happy
for the knife

in your hands,
the white dust
on your bare feet. I am happy

to see your bare feet
in this photo.[65]

Thus, the poem performs poetic justice: a balancing act of speaking truths in the face of inordinate archival gaps, judging what is and is not fair to say in a very conscious way:

I think it’s fair to say
you want to do something

with your hands, whether
or not the photographer
placed the apples in front of you

whether or not they are
apples, whether or not
earlier that day you saw

a friend’s lungs peeking
out the back of his throat.[66]

This passage ends by raising the ethical question of how much voice we can give the dead, how much we can or should reconstruct from a meager heap of personal effects. We reach the very limits of Hartman’s critical fabulation — which Sharif exposes by citing another family member of a war veteran, who asks a question that is perhaps in the mind of many a reader: “‘How can she write that? / She doesn’t know,’ a friend, a daughter / of a Vietnam vet, told another friend, // another daughter of a Vietnam vet.”[67] Since the speaker, the friend, and the friend of the friend are all relatives of vets, a collectivity is emphasized, though being a child of a Vietnam vet is different from being a relative of a soldier killed in the Iran-Iraq War — a fault line that suggests different dislocations and cultural allegiances that may partially explain the divergent approaches to the glaring gaps in the archive. Again, there is no easy or comfortable solution to being included/excluded from the implication of collectivity the poem realizes.

In the following oft-quoted passage from “PERSONAL EFFECTS,” the relationality between I/they/we/you is no simple equation:

Daily I sit
with the language
they’ve made

of our language

like you.[68]

I-speaker and you-uncle may be clear, but not they and our, as Anderson writes: “Such linguistic and cultural discomfort is crystallised through the juxtaposing pronouns, ‘they’ and ‘our’: the determiner, ‘the language,’ belonging to them, denotes a formal, authoritative command of language, which strikes a note of discord against the isolated possessive ‘our,’ at once signifying a collective and that collective’s exclusion.”[69] We are all responsible for our language, but if we use it as an exclusionary instrument (whether intentionally or not), we may fall on the far side of they. Anderson emphasizes the critical importance of the sitting with in “Daily I sit,” linking it to an interview in which Sharif states, “You have to actually spend time with it,” referring to the pixelated photograph on the cover of Look:

You have to actually spend time with it. It’s an image of ‘real’ rooftops, but it’s also one that is impossible to behold in real life. [...] That intersection between representing “the real” — and the obvious impossibility of that — and the way the photograph reveals that it’s not real is central to my practice as a documentary poet.[70]

In spite of the limitations of the archive and the related limitations of the documentary poet’s job as a witness to history and its gaps, Anderson sees here “a call for with-ness[71] — contemplating those limitations together, from the inside of a shared language, and implicated enough to recognize one’s power. Any speaker has the power to sit with language, question it, and implicate oneself in the critical we that mediates and ultimately makes possible any understanding between I and you. If language may be an instrument of exclusionary power, it may also help diagnose and mend relationships broken by war, as well as reinvent what we want collectivity to mean. In another passage of “PERSONAL EFFECTS,” which Taleghani also underscores, Sharif reminds us that “Language and its expectations / teaches us / about the relationship // we would have had.”[72]

7. Towards an entangled we

It feels daunting to conclude this reflection on poets who are rewriting the meaning of collectivity in the twenty-first century. Their open invitation — to let oneself be implicated by their conceptions of we — must remain open. In order to help summarize that invitation, we may summon one more voice, that of poet Cynthia Dewi Oka. Born in Indonesia and currently based in the US, Oka has talked about the relationship between history and lyric — in ways that seem particularly helpful to illuminate Sharif’s consideration of a possible we in “the relationship // we would have had.”

Having written Fire Is Not a Country as a high school graduation gift for her son,[73] Oka was asked, in an interview with Danez Smith and Franny Choi for the VS Podcast, why was it important to give her son the lyric and not just the family history?

Because the impulse of lyric is to build connections [...]. I come from a country where centuries of history were lost; we had a very authoritarian dictatorship for many years that suppressed scholarship, banned writers, all these things, so there’s this vacuum, there’s just this gap; it’s filled with propaganda instead. [...] So, I obsessively consumed other people’s histories of themselves. But then, I also felt [this] is also insufficient, because there are these really deep patterns that end up showing up again and again regardless of what the community is: power wants to replicate itself, constantly, and reestablish its thrones constantly. And I think the lyric — the invitation of the lyric, I should say — it’s [to] put causation to the side; and, like, let’s look for new possible relationships.[74]

We could compare how the collectivities established by Mackey, Gumbs, Sharif, and Oka relate to the past and future: if, for example, Sharif writes “PERSONAL EFFECTS” toward her late uncle, mending relationships with past absences, Oka writes to her living son, projecting the web of their relationship into possible futures — making new relationships in fact possible by daring to imagine them, i.e., we. These new possible relations between lyric self and reader presuppose, not a transparent speaker waiting to be occupied by readers (as Vendler theorized it), but an acknowledgment of nonneutral positionalities within/around/throughout that we. The collective lyric self may be an endless process of self-determination (as in Mackey’s poetry), a summoning of presences haunting and destabilizing canons (as in Gumbs’s), or an intercepted communication in which readers are always already implicated (as in Sharif’s); but these are neither exclusive nor exhaustive ways of performing us in poetry. Either as poets or as readers, we now realize we are entangled, even when we don’t know what do to with this realization, nor what to call it. Are these new forms of solidarity? A poem titled “Though we’ve no chance of escape, encore,” from Oka’s second collection, begins with the question, “And does it matter that we do not know / what to call ourselves?”[75] It matters that we ask the question, because we cannot escape it.

1. [return] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press, 2005). Jackson has demonstrated the nonneutral role played by multiple editors and critics in framing Emily Dickinson’s work as a model of lyric poetry — a model that depended on a specific presentation of Dickinson’s words removed from their originating sociable, material, and historical circumstances.

2. [return] Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), x–xi. The textbook has had multiple editions; on the compact third edition (2018), the excerpts I cite are identical, though corresponding to different pages.

3. [return] Vendler, xi. In her introduction to lyric poetry, Vendler leaves its power of identification unmarked and only problematizes the “twinship between writer and reader” when the speaker’s identity is explicitly marked as different from the intended reader’s: “Sometimes, of course, the speaker is more narrowly specified, as a certain type of person or even as an individual.” But in the next sentence Vendler upholds the generalization of expected empathy: “Yet, even when there is a clear disparity of personal character — as when I, a twentieth-century white American woman, am reading Blake’s lyric spoken by a little black boy in eighteenth-century England — the lyric poet expects that I will put myself into the subject-position of the little black boy, and make the boy’s words my own” (xi). Besides questioning the positionality of Blake-himself as able to speak for “a little black boy,” contemporary poetry challenges the transparent identification of reader and speaker — and, in consequence, the supposed neutrality of the lyric.

4. [return] In “Political Poetry Is Hot Again,” New York Times, December, 10, 2018, poet laureate Tracy K. Smith makes a very similar point while reflecting on how the divisions between lyric and political poetry have changed since the mid-1990s. First, Smith considers if “America’s individualism predisposed its poets toward the lyric poem, with its insistence on the primacy of a single speaker whose politics were intimate, internal, invisible.” Then, Smith notes how, since 9/11, political poetry “has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry.”

5. [return] I understand “performance of intimacy” to be an early formulation of “autofiction” or “autotheory,” terms that today are frequently applied to the work of Maggie Nelson herself.

6. [return] Margaret (Maggie) Nelson, “The Performance of Intimacy” (honors thesis, Wesleyan University, 1994), 126.

7. [return] Nelson, 63.

8. [return] “Eu sou uma anthologia” is the incipit of a draft Pessoa dated December 17, 1932; modernizing the orthography to “antologia,” Pizarro and Ferrari used it as the title of a volume they edited (Lisbon: Tinta-da-China, 2013), with bio notes and works of 136 fictional authors invented by Pessoa.

9. [return] For a contextual analysis of Pessoa’s fragmented self in the history of modernism, see the seminal work of António Apolinário Lourenço, Identidade e Alteridade em Fernando Pessoa e António Machado: Álvaro de Campos e Juan de Mairena (Braga, PT: Angelus Novus, 1995).

10. [return] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1909), 95. Pessoa’s futurist heteronym Alvaro de Campos signed, in 1915, his “Saudação a Walt Whitman” (“Salute to Walt Whitman”); see Fernando Pessoa, Poemas de Álvaro de Campos, ed. Cleonice Berardinelli (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1999), 66–77.

11. [return] The phrase comes from a letter Rimbaud sent to Paul Demeny, dated May 15, 1871, known as the “lettre du voyant” (“Letter of the Seer”) due to Rimbaud’s imperative that one must become a seer. In Pessoa’s archive, there is a draft of a poem titled “A Vida de Rimbaud” (The life of Rimbaud), dated November 26, 1913; see Fernando Pessoa, Apreciações Literárias, ed. Pauly Ellen Bothe (Lisbon: INCM, 2013), 312–13.

12. [return] George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 99.

13. [return] Paige Lewis, Space Struck (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2019). When asked in the VS Podcast about their “personae,” Lewis responded, “But I think that the I’s in all of the poems are just different versions of myself” — an ars poetica that echoes Pessoa’s resolution to feel everything in every way. Paige Lewis, “Paige Lewis vs. Tiny Things,” interview by Franny Choi and Danez Smith, VS Podcast, Poetry Foundation, produced by Daniel Kisslinger, June 2, 2020, 00:20:41–00:20:47.

14. [return] Dylan Robinson, Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020). The expression “tin ear” was employed by Justice McEachern to explain why, in a 1987 trial in Canada, he objected to hearing a Gitksan song as evidence in his court of law — an “inability or willful refusal” that Robinson presents as “just one example of the many ways in which listening is guided by positionality as an intersection of perceptual habit, ability, and bias” (37).

15. [return] Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Éduquer ou Périr (Paris: UNICEF-UNESCO, 1990), 20. The full passage goes: “Certes les Français, quant à eux, enseignaient aux petits Africains, ‘nos ancêtres les Gaulois’” (Certainly the French, for their part, taught the African children, “our ancestors the Gauls”).

16. [return] George Abraham, “Teaching Poetry in the Palestinian Apocalypse,” Guernica, September 27, 2021).

17. [return] Judith Butler, “‘We, the people’: Thoughts on Freedom of Assembly,” in Alain Badiou et al., What is a People? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 57.

18. [return] Butler, 54.

19. [return] Smith, “Political Poetry Is Hot Again.”

20. [return] For a typology, see Amit Marcus, “Dialogue and Authoritativeness in ‘We’ Fictional Narratives: A Bakhtinian Approach,” Partial Answers 6, no. 1 (January 2008): 135–61. Marcus has proposed a Bahktinian typology of “we” fictional narratives (“authoritative, disorienting, and polyphonic”) that may offer insights into poetry as well.

21. [return] As Butler puts it, “the popular sovereignty certainly translates into elected power on the occasion of a vote, but that is never a full translation. Something remains untranslatable” (50).

22. [return] Nathaniel Mackey, Splay Anthem (New York: New Directions, 2006), 115. The uneven indentation is reproduced as it appears in Mackey’s book.

23. [return] The constant movement of Mackey’s we through both internal and external spaces makes indiscernible the boundary between body and landscape, as Professor Nathan Brown notes: “One gets the feeling, at times, that the body itself is the world through which these bodies are passing, such that it may just as well be the world passing through them. The fragmentation of the body becomes strangely continuous with the ‘composition’ of the world” (Nathan Brown, email message to author, December 5, 2021). I thank Professor Brown for reading and commenting on a preliminary version of this essay.

24. [return] Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: notes to belonging (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011), 19.

25. [return] Brand, 25.

26. [return] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 2–3.

27. [return] Mackey, Splay Anthem, 116.

28. [return] Mackey, Splay Anthem, 74.

29. [return] This way of reading the Andoumboulou — as a vessel — echoes the fluidity of an errant body whose borders are continuous with the changing landscapes, or a self in constant reconfiguration through landscapes both inside and outside … the configuration of a porous we (as in the aforementioned note by Professor Nathan Brown).

30. [return] Mackey, Splay Anthem, x.

31. [return] Mackey, Splay Anthem, xi.

32. [return] Mackey, Splay Anthem, 116.

33. [return] Richard Quinn, “The Creak of Categories: Nathaniel Mackey’s Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16–25,” Callaloo 23, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 620.

34. [return] Megan Simpson, “Trickster Poetics: Multiculturalism and Collectivity in Nathaniel Mackey’s Song of the Andoumboulou,MELUS 28, no. 4 (2003): 52.

35. [return] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 35.

36. [return] The concept of a neglected archive is crucial in the work of Gumbs, who, after Spill, authored M Archive: After the End of the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

37. [return] Gumbs, Spill, vii.

38. [return] Gumbs, Spill, v.

39. [return] Gumbs, Spill, xi.

40. [return] Gumbs, Spill, 113, 117.

41. [return] Gumbs, Spill, 114.

42. [return] Gumbs, Spill, 97. This washing power echoes Mackey’s lines: “It / wasn’t the buzz but the feel of wash / I / wanted” (Mackey, 72). I thank Professor Nathan Brown for pointing out that connection.

43. [return] Gumbs, Spill, 135.

44. [return] Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 10–11.

45. [return] Hartman, 12 — where the author notes NourbeSe Philip and Stan Douglas as sources of the concept of “recombinant narrative.”

46. [return] Gumbs, Spill, 19.

47. [return] R. Shareah Taleghani, “‘Personal Effects’: Translation, Intimacy and Domestication in the Poetry of Solmaz Sharif,” MEJCC 13, no. 1 (May 2020): 50.

48. [return] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 7.

49. [return] Taleghani, “‘Personal Effects,’” 50.

50. [return] Lauryn Anderson, “‘Daily I Sit | with the Language’: Solmaz Sharif’s and Philip Metres’s Documentary Poetics of War,” The Cambridge Quarterly 49, no. 4 (December 2020): 374.

51. [return] Solmaz Sharif, Look: Poems (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2016), 95.

52. [return] Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021), 281.

53. [return] Raza Kolb, 282.

54. [return] Anderson, “‘Daily I Sit,’” 388, citing Andrea Brady’s “Drone Poetics,” New Formations, no. 89/90, (September 2016): 116–36. In that essay, Brady notes Sharif’s “erasure of terms of intimacy from censored letters to prisoners of war” and “the mutation of intimacy in the presence of the military gaze” (123).

55. [return] Sharif, Look, 49.

56. [return] Raza Kolb, Epidemic Empire, 283.

57. [return] Raza Kolb, 283.

58. [return] Solmaz Sharif, “Afterwords // ‘Make It as Intimate as Possible’ — Solmaz Sharif at Seattle Arts & Lectures,” Poetry Northwest (August 28, 2019); also cited in Anderson, 389.

59. [return] Raza Kolb, Epidemic Empire, 284.

60. [return] Anderson, “‘Daily I Sit,’” 374, citing Solmaz Sharif, “The Kenyon Review Conversations: Solmaz Sharif,” Kenyon Review (Spring 2013).

61. [return] Taleghani, ‘“Personal Effects,’” 60.

62. [return] Taleghani, 60.

63. [return] Sharif, Look, 79.

64. [return] Sharif, 79.

65. [return] Sharif, 79.

66. [return] Sharif, 80.

67. [return] Sharif, 80.

68. [return] Sharif, 64.

69. [return] Anderson, “‘Daily I Sit,’” 379.

70. [return] Sharif, “Afterwords”; also cited in Anderson, “‘Daily I Sit,’” 393.

71. [return] Anderson, “‘Daily I Sit,’” 393.

72. [return] Sharif, Look, 84–85; also cited in Taleghani, ‘“Personal Effects,’” 61.

73. [return] Cynthia Dewi Oka, Fire Is Not a Country: Poems (Evanston, IL: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2021).

74. [return] Cynthia Dewi Oka, “Cynthia Dewi Oka vs. Spectacle,” interview by Franny Choi and Danez Smith, VS Podcast, Poetry Foundation, produced by Daniel Kisslinger, July 6, 2021, 00:17:00–00:18:52 (my audio transcript, clean verbatim).

75. [return] Cynthia Dewi Oka, Salvage: Poems (Evanston, IL: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2018), 7.