Chorus (androgynous): ‘Find me
So that I will exist, find my navel
So that it will exist, find my nipples
So that they will exist, find every hair
Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad),
This poem never ceases to find me. But how does it manage—against all difference and distance—to do so?
The poem begins with the plural assertion of a chorus: we are instructed to hear this as a collective voice, a “being numerous.”
But immediately, at the very colon that commences it, the poem enacts its first turn (or, more aptly, its first tack).1 Instead of “Find us,” the chorus androgynous intones: “Find me.” Find the foundered, the lone, the shipwrecked and singular “me.”
“We are single,” Oppen writes in his letters, “And face, therefore, shipwreck” (Selected Letters, May 30, 1973).2 But how is it that this particular “we” is so sequestered and solitary: isn’t a chorus a form of quorum, accompanying and, by its very nature, accompanied?
To begin to fathom this, we have to look a little further…
After the first turning, we encounter an SOS of iterated so’s, each of which marks its own decisive shift:
So that I will exist….
So that it will exist….
So that they will exist….
The urgent litany progresses from “I” to “it” to “they,” so that the originating “me”—upon seductive proximity or scientific magnification (an almost autopsy)—multiplies. The singular body is parsed by nearness into near-anonymous nipple, navel, hairs.
The poem (which is itself a distinct part of a larger sequence) insists that we consider how each individual is constituted of numerous and, one might say, numinous parts. To find “me” is necessarily to find “them.” In many ways, the poem’s progression is parallel to the opening of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, which proceeds seamlessly from “I” to “you” to an implied “it” (the grass)—accumulating, as it moves, a radical inclusivity. While Whitman’s poem celebrates this, Oppen’s poem cerebrates it: asking if we (the chorus) are composed of many I’s, and each I is constituted of infinitesimal parts, how then can any one (or one-ness) be found?
The iterations gradually draw our attention down the body and build an insistent momentum toward the final turn, one of the most memorable and monosyllabic plaints in 20th century American poetry:
“I am good (or I am bad),
Here, in this climactic moment, the “I” asserts itself for the first time as a subject and declares itself to be something singular—I am, it says, either “good” or “bad.”
These adjectives, the only adjectives to appear in the entire poem—with the exception of “androgynous” (which means “common to both men and women”)—are the very fundament of law and civilization. They suggest the entrance of the “I” into a relation with the mores of a culture, like Crusoe being returned to puritanical England, in which “being found” also entails the possibility of being found innocent or guilty, good or bad. Or, perhaps on a less literary level, it is like the process of falling in love: it is often as one becomes cognizant of nearing another (of being known or found-out by him or her) that one begins to question one’s own goodness or the nature of one’s ethics.
But instead of conceding to these biblical tropes, Oppen places the attribution of badness in parenthesis. By isolating the adjective and placing an “or” before it, he suggests that one’s moral qualities are immaterial to the question of whether or not one warrants being found. The forceful jolt of the final “find me” reminds us that we don’t send out a search-party for someone because he/she is good; we send out a search-party because he/she exists.3
I am… Find me.
“We have chosen the meaning of being numerous,” Oppen writes in an earlier section of the sequence. In other words, we have chosen to believe that an individual must be found/saved/discovered by another (or others), must be a part of a collective, a chorus, a creed, a nation, an army, or a love-relationship in order to have meaning, in order to have fully lived. We cannot exist, Oppen writes in his letters, “without the concept of humanity,” without the idea of membership in a larger whole (May 30, 1973).
But can we exist with the fact of humanity itself; can we abide with an actual other?
To live is a physiological condition; to exist is a philosophical/psychological one. In Oppen’s work, the word “exist” suggests a quality of life—a living among or in resonance with a larger principle or entity. As he writes in his poem, “Monument”: “To exist; to be among things.”
“Find me” is left alone on the final line—as if to say (as Oppen does in his correspondence), “We cannot escape this: that we are single… And yet this, this tragic fact, is the brilliance of one’s life … which discloses all.” The poem never resolves the manifold meanings and implications of being found, leaving open (or perpetually dis-closed) the idea that to be found is to risk losing one’s individual self to the collective and yet to fail to be found is to risk that deep, mortal membership (“I am / of that people the grass / blades touch”).
This, which is neither solitude nor the being found, is the state in which Oppen leaves us. “Find me,” the poem insists, and a great space extends away from it and its shores—
1Throughout their married life, Oppen and his wife, Mary, were often to be found sailing: When encountering certain “turns” in his work, one can’t help but think of the shock of the boom passing over the hull as the sail moves, often violently, to the other side of the craft—while the poem itself remains on course.
2In the deep precision which exists in any word-choice of Oppen’s, it is clear that to “face” shipwreck is to be at once in peril of shipwreck oneself (at risk, therefore, of isolation) and also one who is likely to witness (to face and look helplessly out upon) the shipwreck of others.
3It is also worth noting that the chorus never admits (or suggests) that it is morally “lost,” as in such hymns as “Amazing Grace,” but simply demands to be found.
Christina Davis is the author of Forth A Raven (2006) and An Ethic (2013). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, jubilat, Pleiades, Paris Review, and other publications. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University, she is the recipient of the Witter Bynner Award from the Library of Congress, selected by U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan, and residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the James Merrill House, and the American Academy in Rome. She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University, and lives in Cambridge, MA.