My first poetry professor, in undergrad, used to talk a lot about “the lyric moment” in a poem. I’m not sure if this is a thing a lot of people still talk about; I went on to MFA school and got into conversation with a somewhat different lineage of poetry and no one in that lineage seemed to talk about the “lyric moment” and I mostly forgot about it. Now, Googling around, it seems like some people think of it as an “ah-ha” moment plus a shift in tone; others use it to distinguish narrative modes from lyric modes: it’s the moment when the poem stops narrativizing something and starts using associative logic and goes really big. I remember picking out the “lyric moments” in undergrad; I do like a good “ah-ha” moment and distinctly remember losing my shit over the line “I have wasted my life” at the end of James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” and also going nuts over a very strange Larry Levis poem about a murder in a record store, where the murderers drive a pencil into the store owner’s ear and the poem suddenly shifts so that it is being told from the perspective of the pencil.

So: suffice it to say, I once really liked these kinds of moments in poetry. But also, they mostly fall flat for me now, and there’s something depressing about a lyric moment that doesn’t work on you, which has been my experiences of most lyric moments for the last thirteen years or so.

When I first read Brandon Brown’s “For My Future Children,” I flipped out a little bit and posted some pictures of the text on FaceBook. A former partner, one I used to do a lot of political work with and with whom I share many political sentiments, and who does not have a poetry background, read the poem and texted me, also very excited about it. “How does it do that…that thing at the end??” was one of the texts, to which I excitedly replied, “it’s the lyric moment!” Apparently, I still have an attachment to the lyric moment, if we’re taking it to be a sort of tonal shift toward the end of a poem that both pulls from and changes what’s come before. The lyric moment working, though, obviously depends on the poem being of your world view. A lot of the time, lyric moments seem to gesture to some sort of eternal truth outside of history. The only way this works for me, given my left politics, is if the eternal truth outside history is actually historical contingency.

“For My Future Children” is a very good poem; you should go read it here at New American Writing or in the book The Good Life. (Really, I encourage you to go read it before reading more here; I wouldn’t want your very first reading of this poem to be the version below, partial and in pieces and broken up by my commentary.) I wrote here last week about not believing anymore that socialism will happen. Basically: I once thought that progressing to socialism was the overall trajectory. Not an inevitability, necessarily, but definitely the tendency of history, provided we fought for it.

Now it often seems likely, though not inevitable, that things will get worse, or stay equally bad. I’ve never actually found the usual socialist boosterism all that helpful; I’m too cynical to unreservedly look back to any historical groups or cultures as egalitarian; I’m not inclined to think in terms of heroes and martyrs, etc. But the thing that I did and, when it really comes down to it, still do find pretty affirming is historical contingency. I.e., things unfold, for a variety of reasons, but there’s no inevitability. The world has been wildly different in the past, and across cultures; there’s no necessity for society to be organized the way it is, even if there’s also no guarantee of anything better in the future, either.

I think this was part of the hook for me with grad school: learning about history, and especially cultural history, was super appealing. Anything you read outside the canon (the canon being so familiar as to not work for this) from at least fifty or so years ago feels utterly foreign, so much so that you will deeply feel the fact that people and the world have varied a ton even within recent memory. Things have been and will be all sorts of different ways—and inevitably won’t always be like they are now. Which at least leaves open the possibility, however slim, that whatever eventually replaces this world will be wildly better.

But anyway: “For My Future Children” (which, in an early turn, actually addresses the speaker’s friends’ future children) is my favorite poem because it’s a poem about historical contingency, as well as about the horrors and pleasures of the current world: 

I woke up the sky
was dark I had a
battered feeling in
my chest I went to
work… (24-28)

And it puts those lines in proximity to these:

I smelled popcorn
popcorn was a snack
made by steaming the
seeds of elliptical
vegetable matter
grown in the musky
dirt of a place we
used to call Iowa
back when we spoke… (34-42)

The poem toggles back and forth like this the whole way: work, battered feelings in the chest, popcorn, ice cream, atolls, the various pleasures of life that we might imagine disappearing just-because and the various pleasures of life that we might imagine disappearing because of the ecological devastation that capitalism tends toward.

My experience of being intensely focused on political organizing was one in which I was also intensely focused on everything that was and is wrong. Some of this is personal: I was in a PhD program (and it seems PhD programs tend to be depressing experiences for everyone); I was also living in Detroit, which has particularly dire levels of poverty, and the impoverishment of which seems indicative of larger economic trends. So, this was, I’m sure, particular to me in some ways, but might also be “relatable content”: activism felt like a rejection of everything as it was, a fundamentally oppositional stance that extended to my whole life. Brandon’s poem captures something that doesn’t often get captured by leftist discourse, and that I wish did: how great things can be, how much there is to lose or win, how much is already being won and lost. These lines, for instance, which reference intense friendship, taste, and maybe also a sense of memory or nostalgia—“good times,” the Proust’s madeleine-like quality of the parsnip ice cream:

…we were
an unrepentant nonnuclear
family of psychos
it was good times
kind of
kind of
nice like parsnip ice
cream is nice on a hot
solar vortex far away
from the atolls that make
up the Maldives which
were a series of coral
reef islands where drugs
were illegal but half
the youth were addicts
bet you wish you
could have seen
them sorry kids... (94-111)

The lines about half the youth being addicts combined with the coral reefs puts in proximity the sense of how awful things are now—drug epidemics that kill people, carceral states—with the sense of natural beauty re: the coral reefs. It’s hard to come by these two things in proximity: I get from this poem a sense of simultaneous attachment to the current world, rejection of it as awful, and hope for something better. The affects around how we think of the world are complex right now, I think—we want to keep present our senses of injustice around our own lives, the extent to which whatever might be unpleasant in your life probably isn’t largely your fault, and also our awareness of the (in relation to me) much more dire injustices occurring in the U.S. and around the world on a daily basis, and then also how fucking amazing things are: the sensation of our daily attachments and the knowledge that those daily attachments are themselves under threat. 

I am not particularly tolerant of poetry about how profound the little enjoyments of life are, generally speaking, I think because poems that focus on such enjoyments (like most poems that use the lyric moment device) often tend to frame them as ontological and outside of politics and history. But when reframed within the social and political world, and projected into the future—the time one’s friends’ children live in, the unknown of the “post-post-post-post-post Emoji” (91-92) era, as the speaker describes it—I have all sorts of feelings about those little enjoyments, like waffle cones:

so warm like waffle
cone warm you know
what I mean? Waffle
cones were fried
convex sugar toasts
you’d like them
they were very bad
for us. O are you
mad now you little
fuckers well we
loved sugar
and condensation
and Max Martin
and we hate the obsequy we were
forced to perform and
couldn’t overthrow
unless maybe by
the time you read
this we did? I dunno
 you tell me. (121-141)

The sweetness of waffle cones and Max Martin songs—Martin is the writer of many familiar and excellent pop songs—is contrasted here with the work that we must do in order to maintain our existences, in order to keep having access to any sorts of pleasures or comforts: “The obsequy we were forced to perform and couldn’t overthrow….” And then the poem, which has been about contingency all along, since it addresses the future children of the speaker’s friends and forces us to imagine not just the future, but the future through the eyes of non-existent people who are already in it—makes the contingency theme explicit: “unless maybe by / the time you read / this we did? I dunno / you tell me.” These lines are the lyric moment, and they get at contingency—ask it as a question.

In its address to the speaker’s friends’ future children, the poem, from the start, assumes a world that exists. In the exegesis of the poem, there is a world, a future world, that the speaker projects, but that we imagine to be stable—something you can point to—just because that is how narration, exegesis, and literary convention in general work. In order for the speaker to address the future children, the future children must exist in a world; that world exists within the frame of the poem and is a thing you can point to. That is: in the frame of the poem, the speaker does not know what happens after their life, but something has happened, history has already unfolded, by the time the rhetorically-projected audience, the future children, read this. But the ending of the poem changes this; now it’s clear we don’t know what happens in the space between now and the future.

It’s also at this point in the poem that the pronouns shift. At earlier points in the poem, “we” has referred to people of the speaker’s era. But now the “we” is a “we” that might overthrow the imperative to work anytime in the space between now and the future—the “we” is suddenly a potential left collectivity. And the “you tell me” does two contradictory things at once, playing off of the gap between the rhetorically projected audience of the future children and the actual audience, the reader. The poem puts forth a left hopefulness—it throws the question to the projected “future children,” but the use of “you” means it’s also throwing the question to the reader. As in, “I don’t know, you tell me, did we overthrow the system?” which asks the reader to act, to make it happen. Simultaneously, the “you tell me” is an admission of defeat—the speaker does not know, and the speaker isn’t addressing a future, older self. There’s no “socialism-in-our-lifetimes” (a rallying cry on the left); at best, there’s the possibility that it will happen in the future, and we—those of us here on the Earth right now—will never even know of it.

I like to read this poem when I am sad and want to actually cry, since actually crying usually feels better than not crying if you are sad. I’m not usually aiming to have a full-fledged cry, but if I am feeling unusually gloomy due to any sort of current event—spree shooting, threat of nuclear war, hurricanes and climate crisis, whatever—I find the poem online while I’m waiting for the train, read it, feel an almost-visceral opening up at the very end, do the commute choked up and moist-eyed, but—I think—not crying enough for other people on the train to notice. I’m glad to at least feel, in accord with everyone else reading this poem, the hopeful and devastating pull of the unknown.

Originally Published: January 9th, 2018

Marie Buck is the author of three collections of poetry: Life & Style (Patrick Lovelace Editions, 2009), Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015), and Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (Roof, 2017). She also recently completed a dissertation, Weird Propaganda: Texts of the Black Power and Women’s Liberation Movements. She is managing editor of...