How well, you, you resemble!
The first person is overworn, especially in poetry and short stories; third person is the default of reportage, novels, and film; but the second person is a tricky business.
When it’s not serving its normal function of addressing another, “you” is subbing for the stuffy “one,” especially when we generalize our personal experience. The second person is also the voice in which we most often talk to ourselves. We see this in fiction and poetry, where it’s sometimes used to address a former or current self, from a certain distance or in retrospect, as is the case with the opening from Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen:
When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the window the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor. [continues…click here to read the rest of the passage]
Fourteen “you”s, all standing in for the “I” of recent or distant past. (Rankine goes on to do some interesting and subtle stuff with “you,” but that will have to wait for another time).
Then there are times when the literary “you” reaches across the page and addresses YOU, gentle reader. In the 18th or 19th century novel, it’s a voiceover gesture, a chummy narrator saying, “Let pause a moment and reflect on what we’ve seen thus far.” In this case, you, the reader, can relax. You’re not being called on. The narrator just wants you to feel at home.
And finally we all know the tired po-mo stunt, breaking the fourth wall, drawing our attention to the artifice of the situation: “Wake up, reader; stop suspending your disbelief; this isn’t real.”
I’m going through this over-elaborate wind-up in part because I want to make it clear that Dorothea Lasky is doing something different when she uses the second person. What she does can be unnerving, which is probably her intention, and is probably why I’m putting off talking about it. Yes, gentle reader, some of Dorothea Lasky’s poems frighten me.
Consider “Porn” from her new book Rome. The subject may already make you uncomfortable: it announces a situation in which the reader/viewer is implicated by what she reads. After describing a scene from a porn film, and informing us that “I’ve watched more porn than you ever will,” the narrator concludes:
I watch porn
Cause I’ll never be in love
Except with you dear reader
Who thinks I surrender
But who’s to say this stanza is not porn
Calculated and hurtful
All my friends say I’m free
And yes, maybe I am
But are you free
No, you’ll never be
I’ve got you in my grasp
I’ve got you right here in my room
Once again (19)
Brutal. You, the reader, have been called on, called out. The distance and anonymity that “you” typically enjoy is gone, and your complacency is disrupted. The jolt that I experienced when I read this goes beyond reading, if by reading we mean “comprehension of information.” You don’t merely “get"—i.e., understand—this poem. It gets you.
It’s this intimacy, this sense of exposure on the reader’s part, that makes what Lasky’s up to more than clever self-reflexiveness. Being addressed directly doesn’t make us aware of the artifice of the situation. It makes the situation real:
You and I, my reader, we exist in a timeless way
Always in space and time together
I do not touch you
But write these words to you
Out of love, or hate, or both
—from "Time” (from Thunderbird)