Poems as Open Letters

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I know you

not in the way
that a history teacher
can recall the dates
of revolutions and peace treaties

nor at all the same
as the baker’s favourite recipe,
that replicate list
of steps and ingredients

but in the sense
that the painter can see the sunset
with eyes closed, amber and vermilion
burning outbound from the centre

or how the poet
never needed “iambic”
to name the rhythm of heartbeats
pacing impatiently across the page.

***

Eve

I die tonight –
in three minutes to be exact –
or at least twenty-year-old me does,
or at least twenty-year-three-hundred-sixty-four-day-old me does,

the same way I die every night.
I shed and recycle pieces of myself,
lose consciousness,
cannot conclusively prove
that I am the same me
in the morning
as I was the night before.

Such philosophical questions
always seem fruitless and confusing
when all I want
is to stay in bed
for a quick snooze before work,
my death quite possibly belittled
by the bedsheets
and the movement
of your newly reanimated body
lying next to mine.

***

Post-Mortem

You lift up the corners of the ill-fitting bedsheet
draped over our shared body:
you refuse to believe in unhappy endings.
You shout for defibrillators
days, weeks, months too late,
call for band-aids and sutures for wounds
that have already bled out.
You tear the stitches from scarred skin,
tugging at loose threads and undoing knots.

You turn old photos into crime scene history,
Exhibits A onward, black and white,
hiding the stained colours that used to be there.
You drag the dried rivers in the lines of your face
to dredge up evidence of misdeeds,
police the shores and block the streets.

I sit restrained in the gallery and watch the proceedings,
reading between deposition lines where I am
reduced to pronouns, passive-voice
eyewitness accounts, past-tense existence.
I am endlessly cross-examined
by every pained inquiry,
every remaining inquest.

This shall be my only testimony.

I know I hold no claim to the title of “victim”
but I refuse the burning brand of “murderer.”
On the good days I forget
that I died too.
On the bad days I wonder
if you remember.

***

I’m really fascinated by the use of the second person (“you”) in poetry, as well as creative writing more broadly, when it is clear that the “you” in the piece does not refer to the reader. I tend to think of these “yous” as addressees or recipients, which turns the piece itself into an open letter of sorts: a message directed at a specific person or group but shared with anyone who cares to read it.

It’s a fairly common technique, especially with published love poetry. Consider the instantly recognizable opening line to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43,” from Sonnets from the Portuguese: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” But love poetry is different in that it’s typically lyric poetry: the poem is a meditation on the theme of love and, although the writer may have had someone particular in mind at the time, the “you” is functionally non-specific. That’s why an uninspired English student could, say, recite “Sonnet 43” to their significant other as a Valentine’s Day gift and it would still be meaningful.

The first poem above, “I know you,” is another example of non-specific second person. Note that this isn’t an inherently good or bad thing; it’s just an observation that the “you” in the poem is functioning in a particular way. I think it makes the poem more accessible in the sense that it allows the reader to more easily bring their own prior experiences into the poem and find resonance with the “I” and “you” therein.

But what happens when the “you” becomes more specific? Take a look at William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say.” The “you” in this poem is clearly referring to someone specific, but the reference is sort of fuzzy. Is the reader meant to fall into the role of the “you,” receiving an apology from the narrator? Or is the reader simply an outside observer in this exchange?

I definitely had the latter perspective in mind when writing the second poem above…and especially the third. The third is where things get especially interesting.

Not to weigh too heavy on personal details, but I wrote the third poem a while back following the dissolution of a long-term relationship, after which there was some tension between me and my ex. I had never really intended to share the piece; it was mainly just an outlet, sort of like the prescriptive poems I shared last week. I revisited it a couple weeks ago when I was going through my drafts folder to do some editing, and that sparked this whole thought about the function of “you” in poetry, so I decided to post it along with the others.

Instead of talking directly about this poem, though, I want to talk about a song. It’s a song by Jeff Rosenstock called “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry.” You can listen to it and read the lyrics here, and I highly recommend you do so. I could write an entire blog post about the dexterous and creative use of mechanics and craft in this song, and maybe I will sometime, but for now I just want to talk about its use of the second person.

Setting aside the question of whether the narrative of this song is based in truth (which shouldn’t matter, but that’s a topic for another time too), it definitely relates a very personal story from the history of two individuals: the narrator (“I”) and the recipient (“you”). The reader — or listener, I suppose — was not a part of this story, but now we have access to it. What effect does that have?

I feel like it adds this incredibly unique and powerful sense of tension or even discomfort to my experience of the piece — not in a way that’s off-putting, necessarily, but just in a way that adds to the emotional and meaningful depth of the song. Every time I listen to this piece, I feel like I’m intruding somewhere that I don’t belong. Note that the recipient, the “you,” didn’t choose to share this story with me or anyone else. Only the narrator made that decision.

So we return to that notion of the open letter. The narrator has created this message that is explicitly directed at a particular person, but decides to share it with everyone. From this decision, we can infer that the narrator wants other people to see or hear this message beyond the individual recipient.

Look back at the lyrics for “I’m Serious, I’m Sorry.” The majority of the piece is spent on excuses for the narrator’s past behaviour. Even though the thesis of the song is an apology — it’s even in the title — no actual apology is given until the song is practically over. The entire emotional nuance of the piece hinges on that fact.

The narrator isn’t sending this message in an attempt to make the recipient feel better — or, at least, that isn’t the sole or even primary goal. The primary goal of sending this message is to make the narrator himself feel better.

Hence the open letter format. The narrator is recounting this story to a public audience to seek absolution. To be told it wasn’t his fault. To feel better.

That’s a key part of why I think this song is so masterfully done. The emotional core of it is so nuanced (and also so fundamentally human; flawed, but well-intentioned and empathetically resonant) that the very format and publication of the narrative is an integral part of its meaning.

And with that, I return to the third poem. By sharing it publicly, I am actually changing the meaning of the piece. It is no longer just an outlet through which I vented; it has become a public testimony, a plea for my perspective.

An important point of clarification: the events alluded to in the poem took place over a year ago, and I, the author, am not actually looking for sympathy or absolution. But the narrator of that piece, now that it’s made public, certainly is.

This is something crucial to keep in mind for anyone who pursues creative writing. Even the sheer act of publishing a piece can affect its meaning.

Author: Mitchell

I'm 22 and currently pursuing my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

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