“We Did Not Make Ourselves,” The New Yorker Sept. 1, 2008
Michael Dickman—not to be confused with his brother Matthew, also a poet-contributor to The New Yorker—has written an airy, fragmented piece on the process of invention. Invention of self, invention of world, invention of invention. Structurally, the piece offers some nice changes-of-pace that pertain to different modes of the speaker’s thinking; contextually, it’s rooted in the conflict of blank slate vs. determinism, though neither model seems to come out on top. Or, they both do.
So, the poem begins with dream, wakefulness, and the conflict therein: “We did not make ourselves is one thing / I keep singing into my hands / while falling / asleep // for just a second.” It’s early morning (we discover in the ensuing few lines), and the speaker is caught in that moment of vivid dream-world threaded by a string of consciousness. Who is actually speaking is unclear: the sentient, wakeful self or the self flying through dream? Is the awake version doing the “singing” or is the dreaming version doing the singing? With this quasi-paradox, the poem dives into “self” determination, if such a thing is ever truly determinable, with something akin to prayer and lament. Are we we? Am I me? No, we are not, he croons before drifting off to create anew. The lines of the opening stanza stagger back on themselves as though they, too, retreat into darkness and slumber. They become shadowed by thought-dream, “asleep.”
But moments later, the third stanza—one long, long line—asserts itself: the speaker falls asleep “for just a second // before I have to get up and turn on all the lights in the house, one after the other, like opening an Advent calendar.” This deviation from the relatively short, chopped lines that precedes it sticks out of the poem much as it sticks out of the speaker’s dream world. This, for a moment, is conscious thought. Throughout, there are three such instances of awareness. What’s interesting about them is that they are greatly in the minority, as though consciousness is something that happens less and internal spinnings, to which the conscious self appears susceptible, happens more. The speaker seems relatively incapable of producing and keeping himself in the present. Rather, he keeps falling into the past, into the dream (and, after all, what’s the difference?). And this happens over and over. As Dickman writes in the poem’s final three stanzas, “There is only this world and this world // What a relief / created // over and over.” And as for self-awareness, well—. Don’t bet on it.
The result is that neither the wakeful present nor the dreamy past becomes tangible; instead, both worlds grow to inhabit the same physical (mental) space, and the speaker is left only somewhat solaced by that fact. “What a relief,” he claims, the poem’s opening dismalness all but wholly disappeared. At least, it seems, the speaker has something to count on, intangible and abstract thought it may be. And he needs this act of creation to be accountable because so much of the world exists way beyond his sphere of control and understanding. He “didn’t / make grass, mosquitoes / or breast cancer….I didn’t make my brain / but I’m helping / to finish it,” Dickman writes. He hasn’t even made himself. In fact, this is one of the few poems I can think of in which the speaker, though ruminating at length about himself, appears to be absent.
What I find interesting about some of the poem’s imagery is that, though the speaker remains very proximately concerned with his existence in a concrete world, the dilemma is a metaphysical one. On one hand, he’s chalking up his “self” to a blank slate mentality: he’s born a zero and it’s up to the environment to start filling that zero in. On the other hand, some images offer a bit more deterministic approach, which makes the memories (environment) and their impact arbitrary, a dead end in the speaker’s search for self: “My brain opening / the chemicals in my brain / switching on.” In either case, the poems says the same thing: I’m not responsible for me, I arrived at the whim of chemicals and of “Dogs / Trees / Stars.” And the “Dogs / Trees / Stars” really only arrive at the whim of chemicals in the brain. It’s a vicious circle. Consequently, the speaker seems to be waiting for Godot. Waking up (from what exactly?) is “like opening an Advent Calendar” that announces nobody’s arrival. He can search both body and mind—and do it “over and over”—but he’ll perpetually come up empty-handed.
What bothers me about the poem is its use of the universal “We.” For a piece so overtly concerned with the existential self, why are we all being lumped into the mix? If the speaker is so completely unaware of himself, whom he did not create and whom he cannot penetrate, then it seems very likely he remains very unable to penetrate any concept of we, which he also did not create and cannot penetrate. This becomes problematic as early as the title and provides the occasional slip. “I can still remember back there / How we’re born,” Dickman writes. Now I’ve taken these lines out of context of the surrounding lines, but since they’re written as individual stanzas, that shouldn’t be a problem: the individual stanza should be able to stand up for itself in isolation as well as in communion with its surroundings. But, how can this speaker remember how we were born? Seems a weird thing to ponder here.
Am I nitpicking? Maybe. But for a poem that claims self-awareness flees at the speed of time in units as large as the smallest units of time, claiming anything for all of us is a stretch.