A lifetime ago, along the rocky, desert cliffs on the west bank of the Jordan River, a shepherd boy fell into a deep hole. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he found himself in a cave, surrounded by ancient clay pots; groping inside, the boy pulled out a crumbling roll of parchment, the first of 900 pieces to be discovered in the caves. Although he did not know it then, he held in his hands the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I’ve always loved this bit of history: the accident, the important texts buried deeply with us for thousands of years. The words that tell stories about who we’ve been in the past, and inform who we might be now.
“Self-Possession” opens with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is the last poem in a sequence of five poems called “The Genome Rhapsodies,” which returns often to the scrolls. I began the sequence in 2000, when my imagination was captured by another discovery: the news that scientists had nearly finished deciphering the entire human genome, a microscopic blueprint of the human creature, which we all carry within our cells. Newly discovered text!—or rather, old text.
Here was the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls again. How do we read and write ourselves? And what of that—the reading, the writing, ourselves—do we own?
Ownership has a lot at stake. As scientists argue about who owns the information in the human genome, Jordan and Israel continue to tussle over ownership of the scrolls, and the land itself remains a site of bloody contest. Even the idea that we own ourselves seems muddy. When I wrote “Self-Possession,” I had just given birth to my first child—my body, not my body—and my father was diagnosed with a dementia, most likely genetic, which killed him four years later. I myself have a painful neurological disease that my daughter may inherit. I’m darkly aware of the genome that my father, my daughter, and I share. At the same time, I belong to my father, my daughter belongs to me, and both of us, to her.
My belief is that, like the body, identity is hardly singular; it exists as a manifold of overlapping, conflicting, and unclearly bounded parts. Thus it matters directly how we treat one another, how we write ourselves, and how we read (or misread) one another. The monolithic, autobiographical “I” that much American poetry is fond of (and insistent upon) seems inadequate to the task of speaking such an identity. The formal aspects of “Self-Possession” are in part my attempt to expand an “I” so that it can, in Whitman’s words, “contain multitudes” (though I hardly mean to compare my writing to Whitman’s!).
I’ve tried “we,” of course, a pronoun that makes its way into “Self-Possession.” And some of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop among them, use a “we” I’ve fallen head over heels in love with. But the danger of “we” is appropriation, an assumption that the poet speaks for others. I struggle with this. The pronouns tussle a bit in “Self-Possession” for this reason.
Nevertheless, “Self-Possession” was the most effortless section of “The Genome Rhapsodies” to write. The lines kept twisting and spinning out. Like DNA strands, each line in the poem has its generation in the lines before it. My imagination functions like this too, highly caffeinated, whirling forward through a synthesis of material already richly in mind. At times, the poem felt out of control, and the best lines were ones I stumbled upon, like—dare I say it?—like old scrolls.
And you? What poems best enact your sense of what identity or self-possession is? What pronouns do these poems use? Can American poetry open up “I”? Can American poetry reclaim “we”?