I spoke to Adrienne Rich just once, after a reading she gave at the University of Virginia in April 1998. The line in the auditorium to have her sign my copy of The Fact of a Doorframe was long. I was nineteen, and I had come out that fall, and so hearing Rich read felt like language beyond my scope was washing over me. And yet, I felt as if she were addressing me. Of our short exchange, I remember she asked for my name. After I told her, I said something bumbling and earnest, like “You were amazing.” And she said, “I’m sure you’re a great person, too.”
A few months later, I found a VHS tape in the university library, Rich in conversation with Michael Silverblatt in 1992 for the Lannan Literary Series. I carried the tape home in my backpack, centered myself with pen and spiral notebook on the maroon carpet in front of the tv set, placed it in the VCR, leaned in close, and absorbed as much as I could. I still recall the interview, because there was a moment where Rich made a claim about poetry as a means of seeing people apart from ourselves. She said,
In some way I think of maturity for a poet as being able to see more and more people in the world—you know, being able to see not just yourself and your loved ones or yourself and your father or yourself and your brother or sister or your grandmother—yourself as a part of a stream of human life that is various, that is diverse.
I remember these words, because I remember feeling resistant to them at first. Defensive. I had been struggling then merely to see myself as a queer person (let alone to perceive myself socially as a part of a stream of human life). And yet, beneath my resistances were feelings of bewilderment and curiosity. I wondered then: what kinds of sight might poems make possible? I know now: poems have the power to reflect social experiences in prismatic nuance.
Adrienne Rich understood the power and consequences of address. For this reason, to read her poetry and prose can feel as if you’re entering an immediate and heated exchange. Looking back on her legacy, I disagree with Rich’s second-wave feminist views on gender identity, which were essentialist. And I was shaken when I learned of her friendship with Janice Raymond, author of The Transsexual Empire, a horrifying work of anti-trans propaganda published in 1979, in which Rich is cited and thanked. I don’t know what it means that Rich is also thanked by liberatory writer and trailblazer Leslie Feinberg in the acknowledgements for Transgender Warriors, published in 1996. I can’t know. Nevertheless—and this brings me back to address—instead of canceling my interest in Rich’s art, my internal conflicts with her have only provoked me to converse more emphatically with her. For me, this is, at least in part, because Rich has served as a model of a writer who persistently laid bare her own limitations, errors, and shifts in imagination (another way of extending the conversation between her self and others) in the service of writing from a more just and intersectional framework.
In my copy of On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, a collection of Rich’s prose written between 1966 and 1978, I’ve always been struck by the discursive footnotes, which line many of the essays, where Rich offers asides, updates, addendums, and self-revisions—instances where she addresses her past self and an imagined readership, too, in social flux. Revealing a changing social consciousness was an integral part of her artistic practice. In a footnote to “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision,” which was first given as a talk in 1971, Rich offers a self-critique of her ignorance about the history of blues music as a white writer. She returns to a dream she had where she found herself singing the lyrics to a blues song at a poetry reading: “A.R., 1978: When I dreamed that dream, was I wholly ignorant of the tradition of Bessie Smith and other women’s blues lyrics which transcended victimization to sing of resistance and independence?” Considering Rich’s willingness to challenge past thinking, were she still with us now, I am curious how else her thinking might have changed. Like I said, I can’t know.
What I do know is that the dialogues Rich invites me into through her work have made me a more conscientious poet and literary citizen. Feeling addressed prompted me as a young writer to wrestle with what Rich describes in “North American Time” as “verbal privilege.” Memorably, in the third section of this poem, the speaker challenges a “you” who attempts to write as if they are floating free from any discernible social context:
Try sitting at a typewriter
one calm summer evening
at a table by a window
in the country, try pretending
your time does not exist
that you are simply you
that the imagination simply strays
like a great moth, unintentional
try telling yourself
you are not accountable
to the life of your tribe
the breath of your planet
To begin to see other people as a writer, you have to first recognize that your imagination does not exist outside of time and space. With deeper recognition of one’s positionality comes accountability, too. To use my verbal privilege ethically I have a responsibility to be consciously engaged as a poet and now a teacher—who is among other positions white, queer, gender nonconforming, middle class, American, Gen-X, and non-disabled. To write with an awareness of one’s embodied coordinates is a seemingly basic lesson, but one that necessarily hones our perception of ourselves so that we might more readily see and value differences in others. It’s clarifying to acknowledge where you’re speaking from as a writer. It’s illuminating, too, to observe how one’s attunements to others can evolve across time.
Poems of direct address carry an especially dynamic charge, because they activate the relationships between an “I,” a “you,” and the different audiences the poet meanwhile imagines to be listening in on such an exchange. As a result, such poems can have a radical and transformative impact on readers as they invite us to feel a multiplicity of social tensions and experiences.
Rich learned much about writing into the stream of human life from her predecessor Muriel Rukeyser. Rukeyser modeled rigorous inquiry in her poems, and she modeled an artistic life grounded by observation and participation, by witness and political action. In her introduction to The Muriel Rukeyser Reader (1994), Rich offers that if Rukeyser’s work is difficult, “this may be partly due to resistances stored in us by our own social and emotional training.” Along similar lines in The Life of Poetry (1949), Rukeyser reasons that when people say they fear poetry, what they actually fear is the emotional presence poetry provokes: “A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel.” Crucially, Rukeyser believed that art doesn’t cause action, but in making us think and feel, art prepares us for action.
The work of Adrienne Rich, specifically the poems she wrote after she’ d come into political consciousness in the 1960s, model the way direct address can hold space for interpersonal recognition and feeling. Notice how the triangulation between an “I,” a shifting “you,” and an imagined reader functions in Rich’s “XIII (Dedications),” the last section of her thirteen-part poem “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” Here are the poem’s opening lines:
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
An intimate and omniscient “I” is the poem’s guide, a speaker who says, “I know you . . .” Then, a range of readers are addressed in the midst of reading a poem. Memorably, the addressees are not only addressed, but they are also briefly envisioned in cinematic snapshots in an office, in a bookstore, in a room palpable with tension. Consider these lines near the poem’s close:
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
The speaker continues to picture each “you” in a vivid scene, and in so doing juxtaposes the internal struggles of various readers beside one another. Uniquely, this is a poem of collective address, which refuses to generalize or collapse differences of experience because of the work Rich does to locate each reader. There is a third presence who is simultaneously addressed: an audience whom Rich must have imagined, too, in the meta-act of reading this poem. Profoundly, the meta-reader is also invited into the poem’s populace.
In February 2020, I spent a week in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, leafing through Adrienne Rich’s papers. In the archive, there were notebooks, drafts, and correspondences with famous writer friends, but what struck me most were the letters marked “response mail.” (Letters being, of course, an essential form of address!) That Adrienne Rich received a lot of fan mail from readers across her career as a poet didn’t surprise me, but the scope and the intimacy of the letters did. Many offered a glimpse into the experience of being a voice active in the grassroots feminist movement of the 1970s. There were letters, too, of awakening, of coming into a critical consciousness, of denying one’s oppression after finding poetry. There were letters of confession, women revealing that they’ d fallen in love with women. The letters were in folders marked by time, capturing different eras in Rich’s career. The letters of the seventies differed from the eighties, which were different from the nineties. Many senders were writing to a poet for the first time. A 1974 letter from one woman in particular, Martha Richards, just out of law school, stayed with me because of this sentence: “I found that studying for the bar was a very depressing experience, but that reading your poetry late at night after I had finished my studies always cheered me up.” The scene this correspondent painted of herself, reading Rich’s poetry late after studying, felt as if it could have been a line from “Dedications.” It gave me chills. Which is to say, something useful, which maybe should have been obvious, struck me while reading Rich’s letters. She didn’t write a poem like “XIII (Dedications)” alone.
Just as it matters where we are writing from, it matters whom we are writing to. Rich’s homage to readers is a clear example of how a poem can expand its field of address without making the use of “you” generically universal. Alternatively, poets can intensify engagement by more discretely honing the scale of their address. And in so doing, turn with greater intimacy toward specific audiences.
Some poets bristle when asked: “Who do you write for?” Perhaps it generates anxiety to reckon with the fact that their imaginations are situated relationally. By contrast, I’m most interested in being in community with fellow poets who are unafraid to consider the particular actuality of their audiences, real or imagined. Let’s reframe the question, though: “Who do you write to?” Whereas writing for suggests acting on behalf of another (possibly implying a sticky expectation to please or perform), writing to suggests proximity, direction, the act of turning to address another, to engage. Once when I was co-teaching with the poet Geffrey Davis, Davis perfectly described how socially nuanced and multi–public-ed the experience of writing to a specific audience can be when working on a poem. He likened it to being at a big dinner table where you might turn to talk explicitly to a few people, knowing all the while that everyone else could be listening in.
In 1964, Audre Lorde, then an emerging poet, had two poems included in the anthology New Negro Poets: USA, edited by Langston Hughes, with a foreword by Gwendolyn Brooks. This was an important early publication for Lorde. One of the two poems to appear in the anthology was a love poem titled “Pirouette.” Here are the closing lines:
Where are you from
On my lips like thunder
A land where all lovers are mute.
Why are you weeping
Your hands on my doorway like rainbows
Why are you weeping?
I cannot return.
In the poem, an intimate exchange is captured between lovers, who touch, speak, and weep. That there is a romantic relationship between the “I” and the “you” is clear. We can visualize the desire in “your hands on my lips like thunder” and “your hands on my doorway like rainbows.” And yet, it’s difficult to place these lovers in time and space, or to pin down the reason for the poem’s sorrowful ending. The refrain “Where are you from” echoed throughout the poem is answered with “A land where all lovers are mute.” Ultimately, we are left feeling the silences hovering around this love, as well as the grief of not being able to return to it.
As for whom this poem is written to, love poems often anticipate an audience beyond the beloved. And so, reading “Pirouette,” it’s useful to consider whom else this poem might be indirectly addressing. In the foreword to New Negro Poets: USA, Gwendolyn Brooks offers that readers, reading poems by “poets who happen also to be” Black, may “discover evidences of double dedication, hints that the artists have accepted a two-headed responsibility.” Audre Lorde was, of course, attuned to her intersecting identities and the responsibilities they carried for her across her life as a writer. What is striking, then, reading “Pirouette” are the “hints” of a specific kind of coded dedication. Imagine a lesbian audience in the early sixties, oh-so-skilled at reading between the lines, seeing themselves in a line like “a land where all lovers are mute,” who would know (without it needing to be said explicitly) how it felt to love in silence.
Lorde herself wouldn’t come out publicly as a lesbian for another nine years, but when she did so the occasion was a memorable one. She came out while reading another love poem titled “Love Poem” at a woman-owned bookstore coffeehouse to a packed audience of women in New York in 1973. The audience included a fellow poet in the process of coming out, Adrienne Rich. Recalling the moment years later, Rich said, “It was incredible. Like defiance. It was glorious.”
The friendship between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, which began in 1968, would last over twenty years, until Lorde’s death. They were never lovers, but perhaps just as intimately they were dedicated readers of each other’s work, who supported and challenged each other to write with greater rigor about race, class, sexuality, and feminism. The two met teaching composition in the SEEK program at City College of New York. Rich bought Lorde’s first collection, The First Cities, from the CCNY bookstore, read it, and was impressed. In April of 1973, while in Barbados, Lorde read Rich’s latest, Diving into the Wreck, and then composed an impassioned response. Here is the closing to her letter to Rich:
When I feel your poems I am reminded that I am in truth more whole than circumstance or echo would have me believe I am, and thus reminded I become more whole more strong more myself.
Let me explain—when I read so much current poetry even of my sisters—I feel bewildered and angry searching—like a traveler scrambling over magnificent caved walls searching the crevices for a crumb, a drop of water, even some shade, only to find broken knobs, which are the finished signs of the outside walls of a tomb.
It is different for me.
In this letter, Lorde reveals an intense connection to Rich’s work. The poems have strengthened her sense of self. This admission is quite moving, but what follows is perhaps even more arresting. Lorde shares her struggles as an outsider. In this letter, she trusts her white friend with the isolation she feels as a Black lesbian poet, with the information that “It is different for me.” For Lorde, poetry could spark identification and disidentification. Lorde would go on to theorize about the creative value of difference. In her 1979 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde argues that our differences, when acknowledged and trusted, are tools for liberation:
As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.
The friendship between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich is just one remarkable confluence among many that would shape both of their lives as poets and public figures. And yet, it matters whom we are writing to and whom we are in community with, given the power of relationships to deepen our social consciousness. In this sense, poems are so much more than isolated cries; they are social ephemera. They are evidence not merely of what a writer came to make in solitude, but of what a writer came to make living, working, and changing culture beside others.
In 1992, Audre Lorde published her last collection of poems, Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New. In this volume, Lorde includes a final revision of “Pirouette,” which went through a series of revisions across her lifetime. Most notably, in the final version, she changes the poem’s last line from the original: “I cannot return” to “I have come home.”
Why are you weeping
your hands in my doorway
why are you weeping
I have come home.
Another seismic revision comes before the final line. Lorde changes and extends the simile: “your hands on my doorway like rainbows” to “your hands in my doorway like rainbows following rain.” These small edits give the image of the speaker’s “doorway” greater erotic charge. The change of the preposition alone—from on my doorway to in my doorway—does a lot of work! The rain connotes climax, while simultaneously implying tears. And yet, in this revised take, the speaker’s tears are those of joy and relief, inspired by homecoming instead of heartbreak.
In her introduction to Undersong, Lorde says the following about her revision process: “If a poem has a job, how best can we help it do that job across several decades? The answers are never simple.” She continues: “I kept two questions before me: the first, What did I want my readers to feel? and, second, What was the work of this poem (its task in the world)?” Listening in on Lorde’s revision process, her deep regard for her readers is apparent. That said, the decision to go back, revisit, and revise the last line of an early poem like “Pirouette” decades later is an extraordinary choice. By changing the last line, it’s as if the speaker is given a chance thirty years later to readdress the lover anew. And just as importantly, it’s as if the speaker in Lorde’s revision is, decades later, readdressing readers, too. We can’t know which readers Lorde was turning toward when revising, but given the choices she made, it’s evident that Lorde chose to turn a love poem of closeted doom into a pleasure-affirming poem of lesbian belonging. Reading this revision is a gift.
This spring a shrub I planted a year ago bloomed for the first time. Using a smartphone app called Seek, you can take a picture of this plant and, while scarcely looking, accurately tell me the plant’s name. It’s called ninebark. But because I have been attending to this shrub, I can tell you other things. I can tell you that in early spring the blossoms burst open like frozen fireworks, which later dry out, becoming intricate paper stars. I can tell you it doesn’t mind the soil on a dry and hilly bank. I can tell you that wood asters thrive beneath it and common milkweed thrives beside it. I could go on and on—there’s so much I could tell you. I can place the plant in time, in space, in relation to others. I can see the plant ecosystemically. Sometimes I bend down close and feel as if we’re signaling to one another in the breeze.
In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell writes, “Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears.” Borrowing a phrase coined by social media scholar danah boyd, “context collapse,” Odell goes on to describe “context collapse” as one of the numbing impacts of the attention economy on our senses. For example, if I scroll through Facebook on a given day, absorbing a range of heavy, joyful, and complicated personal and political headlines outside of any meaningful spatial, temporal, or relational framing, I don’t feel as much as I should. Often, I don’t feel anything at all. This is the effect of context collapse.
According to Odell, a 2011 study found that Twitter users “who had built the most successful personal brands did so by recognizing the fact that they no longer really knew who their audience was.” Odell goes on to say:
I think often about how much time and energy we use thinking up things to say that would go over well with a context-collapsed crowd—not to mention checking back on how that crowd is responding. This is its own form of “research,” and when I do it, it feels not only pathetic but like a waste of energy.
What if we spent that energy instead on saying the right things to the right people (or person) at the right time? What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return—and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended? Whether it’s a real room or a group chat on Signal, I want to see a restoration of context, a kind of context collection in the face of context collapse.
Reading Odell, it occurred to me that context conservation is work that poems can and should do. When writing poems of direct address, there are important choices to be made between specificity and abstraction, between concreteness and porousness, between speaking too discretely to one and speaking too vaguely to many. These craft decisions are crucial, because poems of address have the potential to hold, imagine, or even restore otherwise lost, dismissed, or overlooked contexts. In this way, poems of address hold enormous stakes for writers and readers, because they invite us to imagine difference and feel nuance. Tapping readers into located feelings, complicit feelings, insider feelings, outsider feelings, embodied feelings is radical and difficult work. Without context, we are lost in a sterile feed—lack of emotional connection leads to lack of human connection. Without context, you can’t access the “stream of human life that is various, that is diverse” that Rich described. With context, however, poems become more than crafted language; they are acts of social engagement. Because I am writing this essay specifically to writers who might be spurred by this call to engage, I want to offer a few contemporary examples of poems that invite such response.
“Why I Stayed, 1997–2001” is a poem by Brenda Shaughnessy in which a first-person speaker directly addresses a partner from a past relationship. This poem, which confronts abuse, questions what love is:
When a woman you love hits you
on the head with a book
you love, is that love?
The poem could close on this devastating tercet, but it doesn’t. Uniquely, it’s a poem that remembers intimate partner violence, while also remembering the circle of people that surrounded the relationship. Near the poem’s close, the speaker widens her address, so that she is also addressing the community that she and her partner were a part of.
We talked, all of us, almost
so how did we keep ourselves so quiet?
You and I, together in this
were alone with this,
alone among women who loved us.
While the phrase all of us may have the indirect effect of implicating readers, the “us” in the poem is a specific “us.” Here the “us” implicates the friends who were there, the women who surrounded these women. The “us” captures the paradox of a loving lesbian community, for whom visibility in love is so often at stake, participating in making intimate partner violence invisible.
Via a few well-chosen contextual details, this poem nods to this community in other places, too. There are conversational asides: “(Liz was there)” or “Peggy still in love with you.” There is also the diaristic time stamp in the title, “Why I Stayed, 1997–2001.” These important specifics do the work of widening the poem’s address beyond the “I” and the “you,” while honing the poem’s address at the same time. We’re also let into an intimate context of queerness and economic insecurity in a city in the late nineties, where a couple is used to getting “kicked out or priced out.” We’re let into a space of “no savings, just friends,” where chosen family may be the only place to turn.
“Why I Stayed” not only initiates a conversation about intimate partner violence between lovers, but also extends this conversation to include a particular community of bystanders. When I say that poems of direct address have the power to hold space for experiences otherwise overlooked, this is what I mean. To signal context when writing poems of address, consider: what details could be included to cue time, space, and relationships that might be legible to a specific “you” or “us”? Often, like body language in a crowded room, a few small gestures—a knowing look, an attentive nod—can communicate invaluable subtext to the audience who receives it.
A form of direct address is apostrophe, often an address to a “you” who is dead or absent. The word apostrophe, at its etymological root, means a turning away, a turn away from the public, so as to turn toward a more discrete addressee. “Postscript” is a poem of apostrophe. It appears in Abide (2014), the last collection by the late Jake Adam York, a poet who made it his life’s work as a white Southern writer to elegize martyrs of the Civil Rights movement.
Talking about his process, York said in a 2013 interview with Shira Richman: “In a way, the project of these memorial works is to figure out a way to both be there at the moment that horror caused us to be quiet and to take pause, but also to move forward with the pause inside of us to work against the power that holds us still.” In York’s poem, a speaker addresses civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Evers was assassinated in 1963 in the driveway of his home by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist, who was hiding in the bushes.
For Medgar Evers
I didn’t want to write this,
even to think of you,
afraid the thought would curl,
would tangle and make you
common and factual as light.
So I’ve waited,
hands, pencils down.
Now that seems a prayer
against the world and being in it.
This is why he waited
in the bushes. That is a prayer
the closed eyes say.
This is not the afterimage
but the image of day
on paper, in its pores,
new light that shows the edges,
so nothing can be hid,
even if the words curl like hair,
even if they curl like vine.
Again, today, the light is new,
and because you are nowhere
you are everywhere,
in the face of which I’ d ask
how can I say anything,
in the face of which I ask
how can I say nothing at all?
While it’s valuable to attempt to see more and more people in the world through our writing, it’s also worth questioning whether we can see another person, let alone see them in relationship to history, without a deep reflective wrestling with the self. In “Postscript,” the speaker, thankfully, does not try to show us that he sees Evers, by projecting a white gaze onto Evers’s Black body. Rather, with Evers as an imagined witness, the speaker shows that he recognizes and values Evers’s life, by interrupting the unspoken but ever-present legacy of white supremacy. It is possible for such a self-reckoning to fall short and to come across as solipsistic. And yet, I don’t have this experience reading “Postscript,” because York doesn’t permit the speaker to slip into two predictable modes.
Here I am going to turn as a white writer toward other writers who similarly identify. Two predictable and cliché modes that white writers attempting to write critically about whiteness can slip into are: 1) The speaker in the poem simply reveals their white guilt. 2) The speaker performs that they are a “good” white person, who is on the right side of history. As a counter to these simplistic moves, “Postscript” is a poem that juggles two versions of the speaker—a past self who, out of fear, did not write to Evers, who waited in silence, and a self in the present, who “moves forward with that pause inside,” who addresses Evers, knowing that speaking means uncomfortable exposure. Speaking means “new light that shows the edges, so nothing is hid.” Speaking means making visible whiteness, which often does its most insidious harm invisibly, hiding out in bushes.
Finally, this poem meaningfully reckons with the lyric self in relationship to a history of white supremacy, because the language in the poem does what all effective poems should do—it surprises. York describes white silence in a way that’s powerful and damning, calling it a “prayer against the world and being in it.” Then, York pushes the language a step further, connecting the prayer “against the world” to the image of Byron De La Beckwith waiting in the bushes: “That is a prayer / the closed eyes say.” In this way, York is doing powerful temporal work, reframing history by placing white complicity in a visible context.
Yet another way to view poems of direct address is as portals or threshold spaces that allow for conversations to occur that may otherwise feel impossible. As I write the word portal in 2022, I can’t help but recall Arundhati Roy’s use of the word in April 2020. In “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” an essay first published in The Financial Times, Roy invited readers to resee historical moments of global crisis as chances to break with the capitalist status quo. Amidst tragedy, Roy summoned us “to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.”
One of the things that lyric poems can do especially well is rupture time—they can interrupt, suspend, or reshape our experience of chronology. To return to Rich’s challenge in “North American Time” to try as poets to pretend “your time does not exist”—we can’t. Lyric poems always exist within a time-space continuum. As much as we may want to leave this world for another, it’s still our material—we’re still writing in it and from it. But within it and from it, poets can subvert it. Within it and from it, poets can break with linear constructions, break with normativity, break with the hegemonic notion of progress.
A poet who loves to mess with chronos is Roger Reeves. In a 2017 interview with Kaveh Akbar, Reeves muses on time in his poems:
How to make time. How to make a different set of time. Because, if we change time in the work, then there’s an opportunity to transform the world around the work with this different sense of time. If we disobey the time of the new regime, then we thwart its efficacy, we thwart it. So I think that time is really important. I’m always playing, figuring out how to make a different set of time inside someone else’s time.
Reeves’s poem “For Black Children at the End of the World—and the Beginning” is a stunning example of how the lyric voice can make time inside someone else’s time. The poem was published in June 2020 in the wake of protests in response to George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin. From the title alone, we know that this poem is one of dedication—it’s for Black children. And we know that it is an address by a speaker who straddles time, one who has a long view—one who can see the apocalypse coming and envision a new world that lies beyond after the fire, much like the Apostle John does in the book of Revelation.
There are many contextual textures to listen for in this poem. Individual words and phrases reflect historical time in America, as the poem makes its own. Consider the opening lines:
You are in the black car burning beneath the highway
And rising above it—not as smoke
But what causes it to rise. Hey, Black Child,
You are the fire at the end of your elders’
Weeping, fire against the blur of horse, hoof,
Stick, stone, several plagues including time.
Chrysalis hanging on the bough of this night
And the burning world: Burn, Baby, burn.
The poem begins in a “black car burning,” which summons an image of a car burning during a protest. The poem echoes the phrase “Burn, Baby, Burn,” a slogan from a past uprising in response to police violence, the 1965 riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. In the closing lines, the poem’s use of “fire” and “next” is a nod to James Baldwin by way of the Apostle Peter.
Black Child, you are the walking-on-of-water
Without the need of an approving master.
You are in a beautiful language.
You are what lies beyond this kingdom
And the next and the next and fire. Fire, Black Child.
Even if you a miss a referential nod, Reeves’s remixing of language is evident. Diction alone can add temporal layers. Reeves’s poem is a reminder, too, of how we can evolve as readers beside poems that are rich with embedded cues, receiving different signals with each rereading.
The primary way this poem is making time inside of someone else’s time, inside of what’s referred to as the “filthy democracy,” is through its use of figurative language. A lyric portal is fully unlocked by the sentence “You are in a beautiful language.” The preposition of location in opens a space within space. The Black children addressed by this poem are offered a sanctuary in language, a time within the time of masters and regimes, a space of refuge within the speaker’s prophecy. Time is suspended syntactically, too, by the incantatory address: “You are . . .” The transformative stasis of the verb to be holds the children in a continuous present tense. In other words, time is held as the children are lovingly named and renamed, seen and re-seen.
Returning to the same VHS tape I had watched in 1998 twenty years later, I received Rich’s words about “seeing more and more people in the world” anew. This time I sat with the full context of her remarks, which I hadn’t remembered. As she reflected about the importance of seeing other people in the world, she was simultaneously reckoning with issues of racial inequality and economic disparity, as a white anti-racist poet. I considered the weight of each pronoun as she read “In Those Years”:
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
It was May 14, 1992. On her mind were the fires that had been burning Los Angeles, an enraged public response to the verdicts from the Rodney King case, in which four police officers who had been caught on video kicking and beating King with batons were acquitted. On Rich’s mind was the way so many white Americans, specifically, were distancing themselves from what was happening in L.A., a disassociation that Rich described as a “localizing of national disorder.” When asked what poets might do in moments like this, Rich said it is “our task to keep this talk going on, to keep this crisis in the air.” This time around, as I received her words and her poems anew, I witnessed myself receiving differently. As I listened, it occurred to me that showing up for an exchange is a prismatic experience, one whereby addressing one another we are exposed—“you” and “I”—in ever-shifting, refractive, reflective light. Listening, we’re made visible. Listening, we’re capable of change.
Note on sources: Thank you to Martha Richards for permission to quote her letter written to Adrienne Rich in 1974, and to the Audre Lorde Literary Estate for permission to quote Audre Lorde’s letter written to Adrienne Rich on July 2, 1973. I came across these letters in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, where Adrienne Rich’s papers are held. Details about Rich and Lorde’s friendship referenced in this essay came from the extraordinary biography Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veux (Norton, 2006). Also, thank you to the Jake Adam York Estate for permission to reprint “Postscript” from Abide (co-published by Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).