Move from that distance to intimacy
On Rickey Laurentiis’ “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men” and empathy
“Disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all our lives and, like terrorism, this distortion is intentional,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. In Between the World and Me, Coates illustrates how disembodiment is both the catalyst and conclusion of racist acts; he writes to his son that America’s history of racism against its black citizens, including the figuring of these citizens as black in opposition to a white ruling class, means “first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”
One of the most powerful poems I read last year is Rickey Laurentiis’s “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men,” and after having it running in the back of my head for months, I think I am starting to see how the poem responds to the terrorism of disembodiment, and how it asks its reader: And you? How does your body belong to, or participate in, this body politic?
The poem begins with a catalogue of disembodiments: two men, clearly dead, "hung up," followed by the striking employment of negatives to describe their bodies; they are “not American the rope / Not closed on their breathing” and, a few lines later, “Without a license a right to touch” (emphasis mine). These are African men, not American, the poem's speaker asserts. Or, to make it more explicit, not American, not like me. The suggestion is that the men, “African Ugandan Nigerian,” are not lynched for being black, but hanged for being homosexual, and by the very people who gave birth to them: "Forget the Lie you Lily-Boys you Faggots // Called up from the mob // Of their mothers their fathers."
But with this, the speaker’s struggle for distance, or dissassociation, seems to collapse:
With Christ in the blood who had Christ in the blood
Who sung out “Abide with Me”
This was my eyes’ closed-eyed vision
This is what a darkness makes
And how did I move from that distance to intimacy
So close I could see the soles of their feet so close I was kneeled
This moment, “I was kneeled,” appears to me as the poem’s crucial pivot. Rather than stating, “I kneeled,” the speaker takes on the passive voice: this is a moment of both intimacy and distance, when the speaker is so close to the dead men that he “Could lick // Those feet” – and yet he is insistently not them, he won’t project himself onto them, he doesn’t see himself as “hung up” like them, but instead he “was kneeled” by them. He gives them the power to act upon and against him.
The speaker continues, “I was kneeled,”
Those feet as if I was because I became
The fire who abided
Instead of identifying with the victims, the speaker projects himself onto the “fire who abided,” a reference back to the hymn “Abide with Me” sung by the mob. Thus, the speaker does not align himself with any of the human figures in this dream-vision (neither the hanged men nor the mob) but with the fire and the abstraction “O Lord,” referred to later in the phrase “O Lord abide with me.” Because the first item in this poem’s catalogue of disembodiments is, in fact, “I.”
“Disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all our lives.”
Laurentiis is the writer of “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men.” And, right now, here, I am the reader. One could say that we approach it from opposite directions. But still, the poem is the place where we meet. I saw I dreamt two...
I’m nearly at the end of reading Coates’ book when I find out that Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer that shot and killed Tamir Rice – because the 12-year-old was playing with a toy gun in a park – would not face criminal charges. Tamir’s face appears again and again on my computer and iPhone screens, either through news articles or Facebook and Twitter posts. Every time, I feel my heart and lungs tighten. I think, “He was just a child. A child like my son. This could have been my son. How can my country condone his killing?”
This could have been my son. I think constantly about the grief his mother must feel. Then I think about disembodiment. Samira Rice’s son is dead. My son is alive. Her child, an American citizen, was shot by the police while playing with a toy gun in a local park. My child, an American citizen, wouldn’t have been. The policeman Timothy Loehmann most likely would have hesitated, for more than two seconds, before destroying my son’s body. I know this so well, I only think about it now.
The body of Samira Rice’s son was marked as black. The body of my son is not. That Tamir is dead, and that this is not a crime, is our state’s final, violent mark on his body. To not see this is to participate in the disembodiment.
In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex,” Audre Lorde writes: “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.”
For me to look at Tamir’s face, only to see him as the stolen child of another mother, and to grieve his death by saying, “This could have been my son,” would be me turning my back upon the reasons he died. It would be me turning my back upon the fear his mother and the mothers of other black sons live with in the United States, a fear imposed upon them through centuries of racist acts. By effacing the various distances between us – the distances our society and history have cultivated and sustained between us – I would not be empathizing with their grief, but projecting mine in place of theirs. In other words, I would be testifying against them, saying that they must search for some other reason, other than the clear and categorical terrorism of our state, that their sons’ bodies are threatened in a way my son’s is not.
And so, I am kneeled.
I don't believe that the impulse to empathize (to mourn with, to try to see as, to connect to) is wrong. Of course not. There have been several essays recently "against empathy," and they offer important, necessary correctives to how we handle collective outrage and mourning. But still, I won't take their message as being that empathy is false and impossible. Instead, they make me think, as does Laurentiis' poem, that empathy needs to be re-defined, re-conceived: that is not necessarily the sharing of affect, but is, in itself, an ambivalent one. Empathy is not linear but, rather, the space that becomes present and palpable between the desire for our intimacy and the awakening to our distance.
Both thoughts are necessary, together: Tamir Rice could have been my son. Tamir Rice could not have been my son.
To be kneeled, in Laurentiis' poem, is to recognize the difference between "seeing" and "dreaming." In the poem's first line, "I saw I dreamt," can be read in two ways: the "I saw" and "I dreamt" as possibly conflated or interchangable (as in "I saw, I dreamt"); or "I saw that I dreamt." The latter is how Laurentiis amends the phrase in Line 25; the seeing and dreaming still co-exist, but now a substantiveness, explicitness embodied in "that" arises in their relation. I think the added "that" in Line 25 functions not to correct our reading of the first line, but precisely to reveal the ambivalence that was present there. In verse, "I saw I dreamt" is different from "I saw that I dreamt," and we are signaled to consider how and why.
When the poem's speaker is kneeled, he gets close enough to the hanged men's feet that he,
Those feet as if I was because I became
The fire who abided
This moment of eros, of potential physical intimacy, propels a powerful transition through (poetic) form, "as if I was because I became:" "as" to "was" to "because" to "became," periodically punctuated by the "I." And after this, the speaker realizes, "I saw that I dreamt," and sees how that erotic licking, when unchecked, could slip into a destructive consuming: "Their black skin made blacker by my feeding," what Laurentiis calls a moment later, "this American / Feeding." Licking and tasting is differentiated from feeding – and so, while an impulse toward identification is expressed and a connection is formed,
A cry African
It was American O Lord abide with me
It was human lusty flat
but nonetheless, "African," "American," and "human" remain on separate lines, with the "It was" circulating and linking between, and the poem ends with the speaker stating,
As I saw the other turn away apart stay with silence
I stayed with southern silence
We are left with two figures: "the other," who turns away or apart or stays, and the “I,” who only stays. So we see that the “I,” too, could be one of the gentlemen in “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men.” The title refers simultaneously to the two hanged African men the “I” sees and dreams; and to the “I” now split between intimacy and distance, between “I saw I dreamt” and “I saw that I dreamt.” The title, too, then demonstrates a remarkable transition in form: the sentence's subject “I” turns into its object – the “I” that is seen – and then is projected on and incorporated into the “two men” that are dreamt.
Laurentiis’ ambivalent, indefinite, Moebius strip-like circulation of subject and object is a far more compelling and demanding way to conceptualize empathy than the one-dimensional, “putting myself in his shoes” – or even the “tried to put myself in his shoes, and it doesn’t work” – version of empathy that was already a poetic cliché to Wordsworth.
I don’t want to be romantic, nor to replace one dream with another. Poetry won't restore Tamir's body, and it's not going to end the racialized disembodiment of our fellow citizens, ourselves. But still, I see the importance of poetry in how it presents possible modes of sociability and engagment; how it can employ a well-tread concept like empathy and rework it into a challenge, an imperative, a complexity that compels rather than alienates. For those of us who know we shouldn't turn away or turn our backs, who know we have to demand more from how and what we feel – can't some poems, such as Laurentiis', help us mobilize the force of how we feel to force ourselves to see? Coates writes:
But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
You must never look away from this, from your body, from his.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Rickey Laurentiis, “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men.” First published in Poetry, Vol. 204 No. 4, July/August 2014.
Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex.” Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984.