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“I,” “You,” “Mine”: Subject and Quotation in Eléna Rivera's Mistakes, Accidents, and a Want of Liberty


In the introduction to Quid 11: Three U.S. Poets (November 2002), Keston Sutherland wrote, “One considerable and vital task now facing U.S. poets … might be a confrontation with abstraction per se.” In the context of political poetry, this speaks to two important questions: first, how the individual is to be portrayed as a political subject by the avant-garde; second, what is the role of form in that portrayal? This essay will explore these questions through a detailed reading of Eléna Rivera's sequence Mistakes, Accidents, and a Want of Liberty (Barque Press, 2006). At first sight, Mistakes reads as a coded series of meditations in an associative order which give the reader the feeling of being abandoned into the text. However, Googling the opening poem's title, “thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty”, takes the reader straight to the nineteenth-century autobiography of slavery, escape and freedom The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). This connects Rivera's sequence and the reader with one of the moments when a new type of individual-as-political-subject enters literature. An important part of Frederick Douglass's story involves learning to read and write at a time when slaves were forbidden to do so. In this context, Rivera is opening an argument about how the political subject is constructed and portrayed in language. We will argue, then, that through its intertextual relationship with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and with other texts such as King Lear, Rivera's sequence offers revitalizing strategies not only for portraying the subject but for writing and reading politically. In this way, Mistakes, Accidents, and a Want of Liberty suggests ways of thinking, writing and reading outside what one poem calls “The limits … of ‘you’ as reflection, of ‘you’ as reaction”.

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1 Baude, Dawn-Michelle, untitled review, Eléna Rivera, Unknowne Land, Chicago Review, 49, 1 (2003), 122–26, 122. Further references given after quotations in the text.

2 Halpern, Rob, “Post-Disaster,” in idem, Disaster Suites (Long Beach: Palm Press, 2009), 8283.

3 Keston Sutherland, “Eleven Edit,” Quid 11: Three U.S. Poets: Laura Elrick, Heather Fuller, Carol Mirakove (November 2002), 1.

4 Hugill, Piers, “Poetry and Class Politics,” Quid 19: Poetry and Class Politics (2009), 3845, 43.

5 Rorty, Richard, Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 186.

6 Eléna Rivera, Mistakes, Accidents, and a Want of Liberty (London: Barque Press, 2006), 5. Further references given after quotations in the text.

7 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1997), 61. Further references given after quotations in the text.

8 McGary, Howard, “Achieving Democratic Equality: Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Reparations,” Journal of Ethics, 7 (2003), 93113, 94.

9 Review of Unknowne Land (Kelsey Street Press, 2000), Poetry Project Newsletter (January 2001). Quoted on Barque Press website at Accessed 21 April 2009.

10 Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud's Das Unheimliche (The ‘Uncanny’),New Literary History, 7, 3 (1976), 525–48, 525.

11 Middleton, Peter, “Julia Kristeva, Susan Howe and Avant-Garde Poetics,” in Antony Easthope and John O. Thompson, eds., Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 8195, 91. Further references after quotations in the text.

12 Wills, David, Prosthesis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 296. Further references given after quotations in the text.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-american-studies
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