“Poetry can tell the true American story,” writes Sarah Browning in the March 2014 Poetry, “but only if we listen to all its voices, its multitudes.” This month’s issue offers a sampling from those multitudes—a selection of poems by writers involved with Browning’s organization, Split This Rock, which “calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets.”
The poems attend to a host of concerns about social justice, from the indignity of catcalls to the horrors of racism to the terrors of immigration inspections. And many pinpoint the complications of an identity—black, female, Native American, Asian American—even as they show identity to be fluid. These poems’ speakers split and shift, sometimes merging with other characters and sometimes even merging with us, the readers.
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
“You” refers to the poem’s protagonist, and yet the direct address seems also to indicate us, and to fuse our experience with hers. What does this fusion suggest? Could it hint that her problems are our problems, whether we’re black or not—and that, accordingly, society in general suffers when one group is discriminated against? The use of “you” also hints at a rupture within the speaker: if she can describe herself as a “you” rather than just an “I,” then she has cleft into two selves, and sees one of those selves as an “other,” just as some in the world see her.
Rankine’s flexible “you” doesn’t just prompt us to identify with the speaker; it sometimes puts us in the shoes of her antagonists. “Why do you feel okay saying this to me?” the speaker wonders of the man who made the offensive comment in the car. Suddenly “you” has stopped referring to the speaker, and we’ve merged with a perpetrator instead. What is the effect of this slippery pronoun? Could it suggest that we can skid from victim to perpetrator more easily than we might think?
Within the poem, too, identities prove pliable: common concerns unite the speaker with strangers such that she experiences their troubles as her own. When a man knocks over someone else’s son in the subway, the speaker feels her “own body wince.” When a stranger calls a group of teenagers “niggers,” the speaker says, “Hey, I am standing right here.” In “Citizen,” some lack compassion and others possess it in abundance; some fail to understand others as full people and some empathize so fully that they nearly become the strangers whose struggles they witness.
In Wang Ping’s “Last Son of China,” an unpredictable pronoun marks another elastic identity. The poet begins by addressing the artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained at the Beijing Airport in 2011: “Weiwei ... where have you been? ... I see you in dreams ....” Ai soon surfaces in the poem, when the poet begins to speak for him:
... but I am the son ... the last son of China ... I have to speak as long as I have breath ... no matter how thin ... even if you tear out my tongue ... I’ll still have my teeth ... even if you pull out my teeth ... I’ll still have my eyes ... even if you gouge out my eyes ... I’ll still have my ears ... even if you pierce my eardrums ... I’ll still have my hands ... even if you chop off my hands ... I’ll still have my guts ... even if you grind up my guts ... I’ll still have my heart that won’t stop beating ... even if you smash my heart into a million pieces ... they will turn into a billion sunflower seeds ...
Over the course of the poem, the speaker’s “I” shifts to encompass the perspective of the homophonous Ai, proving just as flexible as Rankine’s “you.” What’s the effect of a poet voicing, for Ai, the artist’s determination to express himself? On the one hand, Ai isn’t actually speaking. But when an empathetic friend articulates his concerns for him, is Ai talking without talking? Should speaking for those who have been silenced be a goal of socially conscious poetry, and if so, is that goal at all presumptuous? Can we ever know exactly what the silenced would say?
In “Everybody Has a Heartache: A Blues,” Joy Harjo engages in a similar exercise: describing a terminal at Chicago O’Hare, she narrates the inner experience of everyone her gaze lands upon, male and female, young and old. “This man speaks to no one, but his body does,” she writes. “Half his liver is swollen with anger; the other half is trying / To apologize — / What a mess I’ve made of history, he thinks without thinking.” The speaker’s empathy with the stranger is so total that she knows what he is thinking even when he’s not quite thinking it.
“Everybody has a heartache” is the poem’s refrain, but by the end of the poem it changes to “We have a heartache”: the pronoun changes, and the speaker includes both herself and the reader in her declaration. She is flying United—a pun, perhaps, on the solidarity within that airline waiting room, a solidarity that extends beyond the page.