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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