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First Person Plural: Part V (Genealogy)

Over the course of multiple posts, I’ve focused on poems that explore the first person plural – “we.” Most recently, I looked at Camille Rankine’s poem “Genealogy,” a poem that, though it doesn’t explicitly use the pronoun “we,” functions powerfully as an exploration of what (and who) is behind the origins of an individual self. The poem begins:

I was born in a forest.
I don’t know my name.
I was born on a mountain but changed
my mind. I was born
in the desert. All my people died
in the fire and left me
with the gods. They called me dust.

Through syntactic parallelism, the poem emphasizes and insists upon its own contradictions, undermining a stable genealogy, inviting the reader to read this, as Matthew Zapruder says when he introduces the poem in The New York Times Magazine, as “a redefinition of genealogy in general, as if to say that within each of us, an idiosyncratic, poetic genealogy waits to emerge.”

When I read poems, I overcrowd Wallace Stevens’s tree of blackbirds – I am of five minds. First and foremost, I am reader-as-pleasure-seeker, immersing myself in the sensory, emotional, and cerebral pleasures of the text. I am also nourishing my “moral imagination” (see Coles; see Lederach), entering texts to wrestle with big questions in the “safe” arena of the page. I am also reading with the critical and academic mind that so many of us learn in school; we either come to recoil from that mode of thinking, or we adapt its modes and habits to suit our own pursuits. I am, of course, always reading as a writer as well, attentive to the sparks of inspiration that might fly from the friction between my own imagination and the text, attentive to moves and techniques that I might bring back to my own writing. Lastly, I am also reading as a teacher, hungry for poems that embody and illustrate the lessons that might move my students to engage with literature and grow as writers and thinkers. In this way, as I read Rankine’s “Genealogy,” it becomes part of my own poetic genealogy, shaping me as a teacher, writer, critic, reader, and person.

In this way, though we all still have our literal genealogy, the actual forebears of our blood (whether we know them as tidy family trees, the gaping absences and unknowns ripped through generations by the trauma of slavery or war, or some combination thereof), we also have the self-made and ever-growing family tree and ancestry of our aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, and moral influences. Ralph Ellison’s provocative essay “The World and the Jug” is a touchstone take on this idea: “[W]hile one can do nothing about choosing one’s relatives, one can, as an artist, choose one’s ‘ancestors.'”

Poems help us make sense of our present, while transcending time and space. In the space of a fairly short poem, Rankine’s “self” originates again and again, becoming a composite of its mythologies. And we, as readers, are shaped by a poem itself, by this poem, perhaps – in the ongoing process of our own self-creation.