Of All Words the Very First: The Second Person in Gustaf Sobin’s Poems

Breathing is transcendence in the form of opening up. It reveals all its meaning only in its relationship with the other.—Emmanuel Levinas

Since this post, I’ve been thinking about “you,” especially the cases where it’s put to unconventional use. One instance that came to mind is the poetry of Gustaf Sobin, where the second person isn’t merely a pronominal choice—one choice among the many that every writer must make—but is instead central to his poetics. In fact, it could be argued that his poetry is a sustained investigation of what it means to say “you”:

‘you’—of
all
words, the very
first…
—from “Ode on the Elaboration of Interval"

Sussing out what Sobin might mean by this intriguing but cryptic statement calls for some leg work, spanning across several poems. I’ll start with the opening of “According to Seneca”:

… every wind, according to
Seneca, has
its
origins in some deep-
seated stellar configuration. once, every
word, its every

blown
vocable, came rippling out of an else-

where that
was. edge, then, towards what?

Like so many of Sobin’s poems, this poem emerges out of an ellipsis, something that preceded the poem proper. Like Seneca’s “stellar configurations,” the source of the poem’s language, and—Sobin implies—all language, is remote. Sobin explains elsewhere that the poet should always begin with “a running start.” In other words, what preceded the poem is less important than the momentum with which it proceeds… and, perhaps, its destination.

But that destination is unclear: “edge, then, towards what?” Sobin doesn’t answer, at least not directly, but the next word in the poem is telling: 

edge, then, towards what?   you, who’d 

scraped pebbles, goaded
shadows, hover,

now, in the

coves of imploded
al-

lusion.

I won’t pretend to be completely clear on “coves of imploded /al- // lusion,” but I’ll try: allusion points outward, towards something beyond what’s explicitly stated, whereas “implode” is violent movement inward. So this “you” hovers, suspended by the contrary motions allusion and implosion, creating a sort of open space, a “cove.” This self-canceling movement is also present in one of Sobin’s favorite words, “blown” (line 7, above; and throughout his work), which means, simultaneously, “to blossom” (as in “blown roses”); and also “to displace violently”; and also “to create an air current.” I’ll have more to say about this air current in a bit.

It appears that this is a zero-sum situation, where “words, now, nothing more than the solvent for other words” (“Late Bronze, Early Iron”), where something is simultaneously said and unsaid. But in “Transparent Itineraries: 1999” Sobin hints that the poem’s “process of its own depletion” has a purpose: 

. . . word
sloughing word in an ever-
al-
leviative movement towards …

This clarifies the role of the second person in Sobin’s poems. Speaking generally, first person is self-identity; third person, distance, disassociation; but 2nd person is, as my dictionary helpfully explains, is “a set of linguistic forms referring to the person or thing addressed.” Address implies relationship, of one to another; it also suggests a direction: outward, “towards.” Sobin takes this literally, where “you” is neither here nor there but always on its way: “you, living already in the resonance of an absentee pronoun, made these deposits in the very midst of so much erasure” (“Transparent Itineraries: 1994”).

But we still haven’t answered the question, “Towards what?”  Interestingly, towards exactly what we started with: wind, air—the breath itself: “in the air’s empty insistence/… our breath alone translative.” Here we glimpse Sobin’s unique conception of language. Many view language as an extension of the primal “Gimme!,” a means of power and mastery.  Sobin’s poetry—language-as-breath—works in precisely the opposite way. You cannot hold breath; aspiration is a continual process of letting go. Likewise for Sobin’s poetry: always seeking to surpass both itself and the “you” to whom it is addressed, it is a means, not of mastery, but of release:

past, past
ourselves, in our own, sonorous dis-
persions, resonates the
gloriole, the
ring
of things released.
(from “Sixth Ode: The Grottoes”)

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