The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

David Ignatow’s “I’m Here” qualifies as an Armageddon poem, a poem of utter destruction, presumably resulting from nuclear holocaust. A forewarning broadcasts the onset of this dire event: “The radio said, Go to your shelters.” However, this message is delivered in such a low voice that the unnamed participants fail to heed it. They do not want to heed it; they do not want to face the reality that the end may be near. Standing paralyzed before the set, they are powerless to act and can take no steps to delay the inevitable.

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The blast erupts with colorful drama. They (the “we” in the poem) watch as it colors the horizon, knowing that they are about to be killed. They cannot embrace the reality of their encroaching nonexistence. In the first stanza, the participants continue to be physical realities, people with faces, bodies, bones, flesh. In the following stanza, however, they begin as physical entities but soon lose their corporeal identities. In the poem’s most visual passage, they run, having their bodies drop away as they proceed, attempting futilely to beat the odds.

They gradually become parts of nature, the faceless, nonhuman nature that constitutes much of the physical world: “We could be the wind rushing/ through the trees or the stars moving out/ to the perimeter.” In the great chaos unleashed by the detonation of a powerful destructive force, identities disappear as the physical bodies vanish, melt down into what is left of the surrounding physical world:

We know we felt ourselvesvanishing in flame and windand it seemed as though we were becomingone or the other.

These lines project a feeling of primordial chaos. The self, now appearing to give way, is being amalgamated into some greater whole, apparently becoming one with nature, one with the flame and the wind.

In the third stanza, the speaker considers what life is and what it is to live. His physical being now gone, the speaker asks, “How then can we still speak to you/ without body or voice?” It is unclear who is being addressed. Perhaps the disembodied voice is crying out into a wilderness in which no human receptors remain. This stanza poses questions about nonexistence, leaving the reader to ponder whether people can imagine their own ceasing to be.

In the poem’s final and longest stanza, the disembodied voice wonders what has become of the “you” it is addressing, in some cave at rest, waiting for the enemy to arrive, or with its family. The speaker, reflecting on having once been human, presumes “nothing for you has changed in form, body/ or mind.” He longs for a voice to fill the “emptiness in [his] speech.”

The voice, desperate to communicate, copes with its own invisibility. It can communicate only subliminally, assuring the “you,” the hoped-for recipient, that “You can speak to me by standing perfectly still/ where you are and breathing regularly.” This rudimentary communication will assure the disembodied speaker “that all is well/ for the human” and will enable the speaker to depart in peace.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

The four stanzas of “I’m Here” build gradually. They contain seven, eight, ten, and fifteen lines, respectively. In the revised version printed in New and Collected Poems, 1970-1985 (1986), however, the last stanza is sonnet-length, fourteen lines. Other small changes occur in this later version.

The poem is written in blank verse, most of its lines iambic, most in pentameter with a few in hexameter, both of which resemble the rhythms of human speech. Although none of its lines rhymes, Ignatow in the first stanza engages in subtle wordplay. Line 2 reads in part “that we stood there,” and the following line ends with “wanting to understand.” One might find a suggestion of wordplay in the correlation between “stood” and “understand,” especially after reading to the end of that stanza, where “still unable to realize” is followed by “being killed, for real.” If, indeed, the poet consciously employs this technique, he abandons it as the poem becomes increasingly philosophical.

Beginning as a physical entity, the speaker loses his physicality by the last stanza and becomes invisible. In the final lines of the early version of the poem, Ignatow writes, “Then I’ll understand that all is well/ for the human and leave,/ content.” In the later version, however, the poet consolidates the last two lines into one that reads, “for the human to vanish, content.” “Vanish” is a more decisive word in this context than “leave.” To leave can imply a return. To vanish is to slip into invisibility, to disappear, presumably forever, a fear the speaker expresses forcefully in the final stanza.

The other alteration between the two versions of the poem occurs in the third stanza, where the original text reads, “you hear every word I speak but do not see/ or feel me anywhere at all. I have no sight.” The second line has six iambic feet, whereas the later version omits the words “at all,” resulting in a line of five iambic feet. The shorter, later line is stronger and more effective. The earlier version overstates, and, in doing so, violates the cardinal rule that good poetry be economical in its use of words.

Very early versions of “I’m Here” appeared in periodicals under the titles “Here I Am” and “In a Dream.” The choice of the final title “I’m Here” captures the essence of what the poem is about better than these two titles because “I’m Here” conveys a sort of calling out, a cry for recognition that the other two titles lack. Also, the contracted “I’m” adds a desired informality and colloquialism to the poem.

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Themes