Pilot Light
A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism
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Not, in the first instance, singular
Lyric Possibility in Jericho Brown’s Please
and Richard Siken’s Crush

“We may, though we needn’t, consult high theory to find what we find in the lyric poem: the self or first person is not, in the first instance, singular. Like language, it is social at inception. It emerges as singular in the process of social encounter and social thinking-through, in the byways of longing and recoil, in the shocks of recognition. The first person is born of the second and born again of the third. It is learned. It is made, it is less a home than a mode of navigation. In this it resembles the poem.”
                                                                            - Linda Gregerson

“I’m not a soldier—not that kind of soldier—I’m a spy.”
                                                                            - Richard Siken

The first person is tricky, at once professing intimacy and boundary. In the lyric tradition, it both creates and examines identity. “But I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth,” Bishop writes in “In the Waiting Room”: “I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was” (59-60, 63-64). Scarcely dared, not didn’t dare: the poem looks. It identifies and precariously places the self in the world. Or, selves. As Linda Gregerson argues, “the self or first person is not, in the first instance, singular” (218). And that gesture towards theory that brings us to Butler, perhaps, saying, “Thus there is no ‘I’ who stands behind discourse and executes its volition or will through discourse. On the contrary, the ‘I’ only comes into being through being called, named, interpellated” (225). Do I really believe that? Partially. Not exactly. I’m more at home with Bishop, her speaker casting her gaze over “shadowy gray knees, / trousers and skirts and boots / and different pairs of hands,” emerging as an “I” even while uncertain of where that “I” begins and ends:

            Why should I be my aunt,
            or me, or anyone? 
            What similarities—
            boots, hands, the family voice
            I felt in my throat, or even
            the National Geographic
            and those awful hanging breasts—
            held us all togethers
            or made us all just one? (74-82)

The becoming of both poem and speaker, here, is slippery, accompanied by the sense of “falling off / the round, turning world / into cold, blue-black space” (56-58). Accompanied by others. And Bishop nails it, that early awe and horror at becoming “one of them” (64). Or, back to Butler, at the materialization of that identity (8). Though there’s something deceiving about the word “materialization,” how plastic it feels, how clinical, when the process is anything but. In poetry, I’m drawn to a kind of becoming that shows its bruises out of necessity, one that disrupts the ease of the univocal speaker not to turn away from, but to more fully inhabit its selfhood.

How to seek out then, rather than smooth over, the seams of this becoming? How to trouble or make strange the lyric voice, even while inhabiting its tradition? In truth, that “tradition” already encompasses an impossibly wide expanse: from the troubadours’ public songs to Dickinson’s private ones, from Herbert’s sacred verse to Ginsberg’s profane. It encompasses trouble, contradiction. How fitting, then, that among those early, public lyrics of Ancient Greece we also find Sappho’s deeply interior fragments:

            It’s no use
            Mother dear, I
            can’t finish my
                You may
            blame Aphrodite

            soft as she is

            she has almost
            killed me with
            love for that boy (1-10)

Mary Braynard’s translation captures both the forcefulness of Sappho’s voice (“It’s no use”) and its precariousness. We sense the hesitation of the “I” hanging off that second line, with neither the weaving nor the love fulfilled. Or, take another poem of love and loss (whose own author’s name has been lost), millennia later but still probably “the first personal lyric in English”:

            Oh Western wind, when wilt thou blow
            That the small rain down can rain?
            Christ, that my love were in my arms,
            And I in my bed again! (1-4) 

Marianne Boruch, in “The Little Death of Self,” reminds us to pause on that “Christ,” to “note… how dramatically this lyric goes inward, how convincingly (exclamation point and all) it moves from that flash of the great world to an ordinary life, from that world’s furious natural detail to the experience of loss and serious desire” (51). The poem has a completely different music than the fragment from Sappho, but both create a relationship between self and world in the midst of that personal loss: Sappho positioning herself between the domestic world and Aphrodite, the English poet butting the private grief up against the chaos of the natural world. I go back to that old argument between Wordsworth and Keats. How much of the self? How much of the world? Even the Romantics were of two minds, with Keats coining the phrase “egotistical sublime” in a complaint against Wordsworth, positing, in its place, the notion of the chameleon poet, who takes on the identity of all he or she encounters, the “most unpoetical of any thing,” run through with world (though, it’s important to say, Wordsworth could be a chameleon too) (500-501). We’re still puzzling these questions of song and voice, maybe always will be, shifting them a bit to reflect current concerns. As David Baker asks, “If a lyric poem is a song of oneself, what is that self? What is its relation to the collective?” And to trouble things further:

Does the lyric possess a political aptitude? Can it protest, criticize, convince? What is the place of the popular in a seemingly hermetic site? How do communities, indeed how do urban and technological constructions, fit into the private or pastoral space of the lyric? (198)

Exactly how elastic is the lyric? What happens when it lets this twenty-first century world in, or when it admits to the world already being in?

I was reminded of Baker’s questions about the political, the community, when listening to a Poets Forum discussion titled “Sincerely Ironic.” The title points to a contemporary discomfort with sincerity, a discomfort that shares some ground with anxieties about the lyric. It’s a pushback against sentimentally, against the confessional, the poem-as-whine. It’s a pushback, in part, against the “I.” As the name of a friend’s website proclaims, “Authenticity Is No Longer an Option.” That no longer strikes me as interesting. It suggests authenticity once was an option. It suggests (though I’m probably reading too far into this) longing, which seems a fairly sincere emotion. Similarly, that title—“Sincerely Ironic”—gives us both a clever nod and walks us back slightly from the purely ironic, as the panelists repeatedly do in the conversation itself. In one such instance, Jericho Brown asks us to reconsider Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” through a peopled lens:

People thought [‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’] meant, ‘Oh, every time I write a poem, the only thing I'm doing is writing poems.’ As if nothing else can be affected by that. The truth is, yeah, I change all the poems, but I also change my hair, and I change Matisse, and I change getting on the subway.

Brown suggests that there is agency in self and voice, with poetry as a site of interaction and creation (and even the most “hermetic” poem can be this) that extends beyond the trajectory of the poem. Reading Brown’s poems, it seems like the reverse of his comments is also true — that his hair and Matisse and the subway likewise find their way into his language. To answer Baker, the relationship between the “I” and the collective is as invisible and necessary as breath.

While this interplay with the collective might disrupt notions of the univocal speaker, it doesn’t necessarily negate self. Instead, it leads poems to deepened, more complicated renderings of identity. “In the Waiting Room” illustrates this, with the speaker’s awareness of herself triggered by the images of the women in the National Geographic. Her awareness of self does not emerge as separate from these women (as a her vs. them), but rather through a moment of startled familiarity that takes the speaker out of herself briefly (that moment an eternity), before landing her back again, changed. She now recognizes herself in those other women, can hear her aunt’s voice in her throat. Also in the “Sincerely Ironic” discussion, Mark Wunderlich addresses the role of voice in the lyric’s agency, or what he refers to as “polyphonic” voicing. After noting “the problem of language’s ability to represent experience, language’s ability to represent the self,” he goes on to suggest that polyphonic voicing cracks open this “problem.” Reaching back to Whitman and Dickinson, Wunderlich says, “Dickinson speaks through—you know, it’s polyphonic—she speaks through so many different personae in those poems, and Whitman creates one persona that he’s constantly changing and modulating and shaping as you go through that whole long book.” I love this turn to two of our most iconic American poets not for the deep familiarity, the singularity of their voices, but for the fissures and multiplicities and modulations they bring us. Listen harder, he suggests. You might think you know them, but their voices refuse domestication.

Just as we listen again to these old masters, contemporary poets keep refusing that the work of the lyric is done. We’re still finding ways to simultaneously inhabit the lyric and trouble it. Jennifer Perrine’s interview with Stacey Waite, “Embracing the Contradictions: Stacey Waite on Gender, Poetry, and Infinite Possibility,” discusses how poetry is already positioned to explore the complication of identity. Waite notes, “The kind of writing that can tolerate, accommodate, and move toward contradiction is the kind of writing that can better represent genderqueer lives,” and calls for “poems that lean into what is difficult, complicated, and perhaps even impossible to name,” showing how such an act has both personal and political ramifications (2). Also exploring LGBTQ identity, the poems of Jericho Brown’s Please and Richard Siken’s Crush offer stunning examples of the ways poets continue to test the lyric’s elasticity. While both of these collections engage, at least indirectly, with Butler’s concept of performativity, both also wrestle with very personal landscapes of being and speaking as a self in the world. Siken and Brown recognize “the problem of language’s ability…to represent the self,” but refuse to turn away from the challenge. Instead, they help us glimpse identity’s fragility, multiplicity, and complication as they move the lyric into the twenty-first century.

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