June 3, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingWriting

First Person Plural: Part II

In thinking about poems concerned with a sense of “we”—a first person plural—Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” might come to mind first. Last year, I did some thinking about that poem here on the blog, perhaps mistitling the post “Gwendolyn Brooks & a Poetry of Collective Self.” I say mistitling because, while I think of Brooks (in a tradition, perhaps, of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes) as a poet concerned with portraying and celebrating “the people,” she (and Whitman and Hughes) more often than not portray individuals as a way to access the collective.

In Bonnie Costello’s 2012 essay “The plural of us: Uses and abuses of an ambiguous pronoun” in Jacket 2, after examining the “we” of “We Real Cool,” she notes that Brooks “. . . did not embrace group identity in her poetry. Brooks rarely uses the first person plural in her work. She individuates the people she describes . . . She gives them names—‘Sadie and Maud,’ ‘De Will Williams,” ‘Mrs. Coley’ . . .”

Costello brings “We Real Cool” up in the context of what she calls “the group ‘we’—contrasting this with the “royal ‘we’: “If the royal ‘we’ pluralizes the self, the group ‘we’ turns many into one, a rhetorical strategy with its own set of advantages and dangers.” She touches on the “inclusive or universal ‘we,’ addressed to humankind” as well.

Costello includes two of my go-to “we” poems for teaching, written with over a century in between—Tracy K. Smith’s 2011 “Us & Co.,” included in her collection Life on Mars, and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 “We Wear the Mask,” included in his collection Majors and Minors. While Costello’s groupings of “we” aren’t set in stone, many in-class discussions about “Us & Co.” do hinge on the “inclusive or universal” possibilities of Smith’s “we,” and many discussions about “We Wear the Mask” hinge on students’ reflection on the sense of  the “deliberately ambiguous,” “particular . . . or universal” “we” implicit in Dunbar’s words.

When I think of contemporary poets engaged in vital, thrilling, and troubling investigations of the first person plural, I think of Camille Rankine. Perhaps the most immediate example is her poem actually titled “We.” First published in Boston Review in 2014, and included in her first collection of poems, Incorrect Merciful Impulses (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), enjambment into the first line wrenches the poem’s subject (“We”) immediately into its predicate:

have been the buyer, the bought
the boy’s blood in the dirt

Have been the woman in winter
the knife of her hunger

have been the knife at her throat . . .

Rankine’s “we” shape-shifts, elegizing and implicating in the same breath. Through asyndeton, omission of certain conjunctions, “we” have to live with the multiple truths of “ourselves” at once: “have been the buyer, the bought . . . have ravaged and burned, been burned . . .” A moment like “the buyer, the bought” also foregrounds this shape-shifting nature through polyptoton—the different words’ common root: etymology as a painful family tree. Emphasizing these inextricable dualities and multiplicities, Rankine repeats the present perfect tense again and again: “We // have been . . . / have been . . . / have been . . .” These indefinite moments of collective being constituting not a neat chronology or delineation of who “we” are, but an overlapping, contradicting sense of ourselves.

The poem’s ending brings both hope and horror.

In Boston Review: “. . . a new fruit / growing ripe within our skin.”

In Incorrect Merciful Impulses: “. . . a new fruit / growing ripe within our skins.”