Once there were world wars and that's where modernism came from, the horrors of war that were too much to present in a linear narrative or a classical form. I recently revisited a fifty-year-old poem I learned about in a video last year, an untitled poem by Muriel Rukeyser that begins "I lived in the first century of world wars." The video shows people in 1968 and 2018 doing much the same thing — allowing the news to "come out of various devices" and drown out their morning thoughts, finding their friends "more or less mad for similar reasons," inhabiting a sorrowful and anxious age.
In poems I'm often drawn towards the turn from "I" to "we." There's a powerful gesture in a "we" — a unity that demands questioning. Who gets to be a "we" and who is a "you" or otherwise? Who is invited under the big tent of the plural first-person? The first "we" in this poem comes two-thirds of the way in, after the speaker has lived through the day in its frustrations and worries:
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other...
The "we" reaches out to become a bigger "we" — and maybe the first "we" is just a theory about the others that might be found.
Contrastingly I found a poem with a "we" in the title, a "we" that acts in the speaker's imagination throughout: it's called "Everybody In the Car We Are Leaving Without You." The first line lends the title to the collection it's in, "Let's All Die Happy" by Erin Adair Hodges. It's a poem with a very different mood, and one I'll admit I was drawn to because its core mechanic of listed "Let's" statements resembles a poem I once wrote about love in the time of No Fear t-shirts. (Which I read aloud on video here if you need that.)
The "we" in "Everybody In the Car We Are Leaving Without You" performs a variety of more or less theoretical actions, from unlearning mayonnaise to being Vienna, or accident. Enjambed half-rhymes fading into full rhymes at the end (graves/ flames/ names / blame) bring about an off-kilter resolution to an oddball list. It's a poem of possibility with an undertow of resignation — do "we" really want to be "the lake / that the bodies go into" in the end? Something mysterious and nullifying? I think I'd rather not.
I don't have a satisfying conclusion to this letter or this year. I have fragments of hope and good intentions — to be part of a significant "we," a force for what is wonderful. I have an ever-growing stack of things to read and a dog staring me down for a walk. Which seems as good a place to leave this as any.
Here's to next year together,