“Can the poem,” Robertson asks rhetorically, “become the space of that solitude? In this instance I took 9 years to build a pronoun. During that time I didn’t talk about it, and that was a freedom and a pleasure.” The solitary struggle “towards a pronoun caked in doubt” has culminated in the “complex structure” of Cinema of the Present, her most extended essay at the autobiographical poem of distributed subjectivity—and its pronoun is “you”:
What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?
You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.
A bunch of uncanniness emerges.
At 20 hertz it becomes touch.
A concomitant gate.
At the middle of your life on a Sunday.
A dove, a crowned warbler in redwood, an alarm, it stops.
You set out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.
The “I” is not entirely absent from Cinema, but Robertson drops it rarely and when she does, it is subordinate. Most appearances of a first person pronoun are accompanied by a “you” or “your,” as in “I’m in debt to your radiant obscenity,” or, more conspicuously, “If I want to cry it’s because I’m not a pessimist, you said.” The second person is a notoriously tricky voice to pull off in a literary work of any length; “you,” to modify Robertson’s opening line, is a problem. It can lead to unproductive alienation of the reader, who might, upon reading a sequence of sentences seemingly addressed to her directly, respond defensively: “No, I damn well am not.” There are good reasons that participants in mediated counselling are urged to frame their remarks in terms of how they feel, rather than in terms of what their antagonist does. Another problem with “you” is its potential haziness. An “I” or a “she” is almost always specific in its reference, but the indefinite “you,” even more than “we” or “they,” can refer to no one in particular.
The polyvalent character of the second person pronoun, however, is precisely what makes it the mot juste for a hundred-page extension of Robertson’s earlier ventures. The “you” is the very embodiment of “distributed subjectivity”: it can be singular, it can be plural, it can be the reader, it can be the poet, it can be anyone and everyone.
IN THE SECOND PERSON