by Laiya Tanedo
Harryette Mullen is the author of several poetry collections, winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and a finalist for a National Book Award. She teaches American Poetry, African American Literature, and Creative Writing at UCLA.
Harryette Mullen writes "We Are not Responsible" (pg. 136 ‘of poetry and protest’) in the language employed by corporations, authority officials, lawyers, and bureaucracies. She especially makes use of the legal jargon used to issue disclaimers and limit liabilities. She reveals how the language that is designed to be benign can, in fact, sound inherently cold and deceitful. In her bio, Mullen says, “Like music and other arts, and even spiritual practice, poetry is what reminds me that I am human. A dog doesn’t need to be reminded that it’s a dog, but I think occasionally we human beings need to be reminded that we are human” (Of Poetry and Protest, pg. 135). However, this value of intimate interpersonal connection is in stark contrast with the verse of Mullen’s poem “We Are Not Responsible” to follow.
Every line in this verse begins with the phrase ‘We’ and is then followed up by authoritative restrictions. It is possible to take a knife and slice the first three syllables of each line into a neat chunk of negatives. ‘We are not', 'We can not', 'We do not’, and ‘We reserve’, as if changing the format slightly each time will obscure the fact that this authoritative ‘We’ is denying us access to something.
We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives.
We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions.
These first few lines are so familiar, every modern human being has had to acclimatize themselves to these monotone voices- in airports and on phone calls with robots. The english is pristine and unintrusive, but Mullen has changed the vocabulary at the very end - making a reader feel a lurch in regularity. Dread begins to build, because a reader only witnesses the tone shift at the end of the sentence, as if having a delayed realization that they might be about to lose something important. Mullen is clever in her following introduction of implied aggression.
We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.
The last line of this verse is powerful, it is made all the more painful to the reader because the language of this is completely unchanged from its original context. It is still incredibly commonplace to see these signs in restaurants and airport terminals. This last stanza plays as a list of rules and regulations - uniform, and always ending on the down beat. Mullen hooks the reader, and her bridge into the next stanza merely goes into greater detail - while raising the stakes of the previous situation.
Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your
In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your
Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments.
If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of
In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself.
Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle
your frightful claims.
Our handlers lost your luggage and we are unable to find the key
to your legal case.
Mullen explains, “In a general way it’s about the social contract. The borrowed language in the poem runs the gamut from airline safety instructions and corporate disclaimers to the Supreme Court’s ruling against Dred Scott. This was written before 9–11, when profiling was widely accepted as necessary for security. Yet, even before that terrorist attack, racial profiling targeted people of color as potential criminals, like the '99 police shooting of Amadou Diallo. We that consider ourselves law-abiding citizens have surrendered a lot of our freedoms in order to feel safe. The poem plays back the language of authority in what seems to me a logical movement from the rules and regulations we must obey as airline passengers, to the whole system of laws derived from original documents securing personal property of mostly white male owners. What might be unnerving when I read this poem to an audience is that I keep repeating the word “we”. Instead of “us" and "them” it’s “we" and "you,” so it’s a bit skewed when I speak in the voice of the authoritative “We” versus “You” whose rights are threatened or violated.”
- Harryette Mullen, Jacket Magazine
You were detained for interrogation because you fit the profile.
This line both builds tension and serves as a bridge, maintaining the notion of individuality being compressed into a file, and adding to the emotional detachment of the "rules".
You are not presumed to be innocent if the police have reason to
suspect you are carrying a concealed wallet.
It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color.
It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights.
These last 3 lines are the first explicit mentions of police interactions with people of color that led to violence, and because Mullen still utilizes ‘You’, the reader’s experience of the poem is sharpened and specific. The reader is the minority, and ‘We’ includes enforcers, most likely with loaded guns. The intensity of this imagined experience serves as the perfect final bridge into the last stanza. “Step Aside” is the last 3 syllable entrance into a line, and it is a powerful one. This line cannot be used anywhere else in the poem, it brings proximity with the danger that the reader is perceiving- it brings the officer up close and personal. This claustrophobic experience brought to the reader could not exist without all the set up of the previous stanzas.
Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude.
You have no rights that we are bound to respect.
Please remain calm or we can’t be held responsible for what
happens to you.
As one looks back over the poem, realize two things. If you count syllables, you realize that almost every line is made up of an even number of syllables. This is a trick of rhetoric, of public speakers of every kind, because the human mind wants to believe that a sentence that sounds well balanced also has well-balanced logic behind it. This is why the catchiness of slogans is so important. This is why a man can get off a murder charge when his lawyer insists, “If it doesn’t fit, you must aquit!” Yet, this is directly contrasted by the blatant aggression and underlying threat of this poem. The last line, “Please remain calm or we can’t be held responsible for what happens to you,” is 19 syllables long. It steps out of formation, violent yet distanced from the violence. As if those who enforce the rules bear no responsibility. As if the law is never wrong.
Harryette Mullen brings to mind that when we hear or read all these disclaimers and jargon - perhaps, this is what corporations and governments are really trying to say. This use of language is not dissimilar to the inhumane language used in WW2 to describe an enemy. Perhaps, they develop this language specifically to separate them from ‘us’, the law-abiding citizens who rely on them. Perhaps, they build their words and actions to be as robotic as possible, because ‘We’ could not bear to continue to do what they do to ‘You’ if they related to ‘You’ like a fellow human being. In other countries it is commonplace for strangers to call each other ‘uncle’, ‘auntie’, ‘grandfather’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and ‘child’. What would happen to the rate of police brutality if they were required to call citizens by informalities? “Put your hands up, Auntie”? Well, that sounds ridiculous. How about, “You’re under arrest, brother”? It sounds laughable - a line from a B-movie. Yet, can you really imagine a police officer being able to thoughtlessly use excessive force on another young black male, directly after calling him ‘Son’?
Laiya Tanedo is an English Major at PCC and a guest blogger for Instress. Laiya's artwork is also featured in the Inscape Online, Vol. 2, Fall Issue.
Cushway, Philip. “Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin”. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2016, pg. 136.
Lancaster, Simon, and TEDxVerona. "Speak like a Leader TEDxVerona." YouTube. YouTube, 22 May 2016. Web. 27 May 2017.
Mullen, Harryette, and Barbara Henning. “Harryette Mullen: From S to Z.” Jacket 40 - Late 2010 - Harryette Mullen: From S to Z: Harryette Mullen in conversation with Barbara Henning, Jacket Magazine, 2010, jacketmagazine.com/40/iv-mullen-ivb-henning.shtml. Accessed 27 May 2017.
11/2/2019 07:15:17 pm
I heard Mullens' "We Are Not Responsible" on NPR recently. On amazon, I'd like to buy a copy of her book of poetry that has that poem in it, but cannot figure out what book has it. Can you tell me? Thanks
11/2/2019 11:46:08 pm
Hi Meredith, the poem "We Are Not Responsible" and others can be found in her book "Sleeping with the Dictionary".
12/30/2020 12:07:25 pm
Interesting read, thanks for sharing
MR PAUL CROUCHER
2/26/2021 03:58:00 pm
Thanks for sharing this essay, so useful to help us understand how peoples can be kept down by the use of language in this evocative poem. So relevant with fascism and institutionalised racism coming to the surface and erupting in 2020.
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