In Those Years: Finding Identity in Isolation

In Those Years
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves *

reduced to
and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I

I think this passage* is about individuality and being caught up with oneself as opposed to looking outwards into the world. There is a focus on introspection as seen with the words “we” and “you” as opposed to “I”. The first line speaks to a contemplative stance that looks back on a time where individuality became the prime focus and became all-consuming (we see this in the wording “we lost track”). The second line speaks to what was lost, which was a collectivist view (we see this with the use of “we” and “you”). The third line is so interesting because it both implies a collective “ourselves” but also implies an individual finding of oneself, as the sentence uses “ourselves” instead of “ourself”, implying this discovery is individualistic.  

The passage relates to the entirety of the piece in the way that the whole piece shares a theme of a dichotomy between collectivism and individualism. The first stanza is used to introduce the second stanza, which focuses on “personal life” being the only focus of one’s life and perhaps one’s existence. Perhaps this solitary existence symbolizes a coping mechanism for queer individuals who feel alone in their sexual orientation and identity because they exist in a time where heteronormativity was overpowering. The words, “that was the only life we could bear witness to” indicates how one’s oppressive, ignorant, and uneducated external environment affects one’s knowledge about one’s queerness, convincing them that something is inherently wrong with them. This then leads into the third stanza, which focuses on how, as much as one tries to remain ‘in hiding’ and isolated because of fear of how others will view and treat them,  past wide-held beliefs about queerness will constantly affect how someone exists in the world, whether that ‘advice’ is welcome by the individual or not (“But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged into our personal weather”). 

I think this poem relates to our class discussions and concepts in that it focuses on how one’s identity, specifically one’s sexual orientation, is impacted by those who came before (“history”) as well as experiences of abnormality and isolation that can come with identifying as a member of the LGBTQ individual. It speaks to the exhaustion and fountain of emotions that comes with the all-encompassing and overwhelming feelings of confusion (“we lost track of the meaning”) and of feeling like an outcast (“reduced to I and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible”).

One thought on “In Those Years: Finding Identity in Isolation”

  1. Thank you for the post.
    The poem is only two stanzas, your stanza 1 + 2 are in fact one stanza. I found your point about “coping mechanism” as the cause of the retreat into individual lives interesting and convincing. I was imagining the “I” as wanting to live a personal life without the burden of the whole, of activism, but still impossible because the whole is still criminalized and demonized. And it could be both. I find it interesting as well that “In Those Years” came out in 1991, one year after the queer manifesto “Queers read this: I hate straights” was published in 1990. The manifesto called upon the solidarity of queer people and reignition of their activist fervor, because apparently, queer people, as argued by the manifesto, had become individuals, wanting to avoid the danger of identifying as queer; they had become separate from the whole, as the whole was still deeply dehumanized and horrifically oppressed and murdered.

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