The Experience of Self-Loss in American Literature

As individuals, we all want the best out of life. In difficult times, we branch out to other people that we consider to be in similar situations. Despite being so afraid, it is still possible for us to feel empathy and share compassion for other people. Fear of lost identification led to multiple speakers attempting to locate their place in America. While Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Refugee Ship” captures the experience of a person stuck in between two cultures, W. H. Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” exposes the feelings of appearances versus reality of the world.

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Motivated by the search of identity, Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Refugee Ship” is a powerful cry to language, written for the book, Emplumada (1981). In this poem, Lorna goes into depth of race and family. The speaker is aware of the history but not completely infused because she has never learned Spanish. This has always been an issue for the speaker. She admits, “Mama raised me without language”. Lorna uses this to focus on her origin, yet emphasizes how the culture is alienated. Her style of writing, using the metaphorical ship adds to the journey of her bloodline. She describes, “I feel I am a captive aboard the refugee ship. The ship that will never dock”. The craft is at sea with its confused passengers hoping for a place to land. Despite them being physically there, they accept that the ship will never reach “safety”. Since there isn’t an end to the passage, the speaker’s feelings will remain the same as well.

The poem written by W. H. Auden, in 1939, “Unknown Citizen” emphasizes a citizen who to the state was considered as a “saint”. Satire is used against the speaker to make clear that the citizen,serving the “Greater Community”, has lost his identity. This way of writing helps Auden brings out the irony between the words of the speaker who presents the poem and the thoughts of the poet. He confirms, “And all the reports on his conduct agree that, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint”. To insist on the sainthood, the speaker adds “He worked in a factory and never got fired, but satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc” . The speaker is satisfied with the behavior of the citizen, however the poem allows the readers to evaluate the standards that are judging him. Auden expresses his attitude including connotation of “Was he free? Was he happy?”  and obscurity of “The question is absurd. Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard”.

The poems’ focus on the experiences of the characters helps analyze a sense of attempting to regain back their lost identities. By bringing the reader closer to their “locations” through layers of words, and the figure of speech symbolizing the messages that are within, the poems define the dislocation of each individual. These poems offer the readers a rare opportunity to discover the extensive effects of experience alienation among America.

07 July 2022

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