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The Unity of Form in Layli Long Soldier's 'Obligations 2'

Herman Luis Chavez, Managing Editor

September 15, 2020

Layli Long Soldier’s “Obligations 2” is adventurous with form. This poem confronts us with choices we must make as the reader; we can take a path through the middle, or through the edges, or a combination of both. We can read top to bottom, and we can read left to right. We can read and re-read and re-read and find a new poem each time. Whatever we do, we’re presented with the enigma of choice. No matter how we do it, Long Soldier restricts the specific words, and sometimes where we start and end. I believe that in writing this poem, Soldier gives us a hot take on unity: no matter how we choose to roam, we end up coming together.

Poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/149976/obligations-2

Long Soldier demonstrates choice to us through her form. She gives us 9 lines, but they aren’t equal. Spanning from one phrase to five, we have both a maximum and a minimum amount of paths to take.

And there are, however, some steady truths to the poem. It begins with “As we” and it ends with “across our faces”; noticeably, in both instances, there is a sense of communality, where the speaker of the poem identifies with others. We can infer that this community is the poem’s reader, from the structure of the poem and the agency that it gives the reader. Long Soldier also gives us one line with the same phrase: “the grief” that repeats four times in the sixth line. We have to face the grief, and we have to face it together. Long Soldier doesn’t give us a choice.

However, everywhere else, we can decide, even if only between a few options. Here’s my favorite path: “As we embrace the present we begin to accept the grief we wield into light across our faces.” This path gives me strength. The phrases with “embrace,” “accept,” and “wield,” combined with Long Soldier’s communal references, make me as a reader feel empowered to take on the grief laid out for me. There are other options, though, each with their own emotion:

“As we resist the past we fail to accept the grief we bury as ash across our faces.”

“As we embrace the future we struggle to find the grief we shift into light across our faces.”

And on, and on, and on.

Interestingly, we don’t have a subject for our grief. Is it the world? Is it ourselves? It is something completely unexpected, such as a single rotted fruit? Or something more personal to Long Soldier, like a recently deceased loved one? There seems to be a totality to Long Soldier’s poem even if her subject remains elusive. The shape of her poem gives us a hint, though: a diamond. It is a precise shape, suggesting at the very least that there is a direction to the poem. Also, as a diamond, it suggests a sort of pressure that results in its current shape.

I read this poem as a call to join in unity to overcome suffering. I see that “Obligations 2” tells us that although we experience grief collectively, we each have different ways of experiencing it, and we have certain choices we can make even if others are tied to our community. I think this is useful for us, especially now. We are suffering through a pandemic. Through an election. Through large, worldly events we can’t control. We are in our own 2020 diamond, taking our own paths.

And it all comes down to this: we’re doing it together.

Here, choice is both given and taken. Layli Long Soldier engages with unity in different ways: I encourage you to think about the ways that you might read “Obligations 2,” and to use the following as a prompt for your own creative writing.

In this poem, Layli Long Soldier uses the diamond structure and different pathways to suggest choice even while maintaining community and grief as centerpieces of the poem. Write your own “diamond” poem, with two consistent strains. Like Long Soldier, see how you can give agency to your reader even as you present them with certain boundaries to remain within as they read.

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